While it might seem Republicans have had an extremely difficult time cobbling together a governing majority on a host of issues the GOP’s squabbles overshadow a significant problem for Democrats. The party is sure to score electoral success next year but they lack one key component of capitalizing post-wave if one develops; a governing agenda.
It might seem on the surface Democrats are united in the Trump era and they certainly are. That is they are on everything Republican or Trump supported. But when it comes time to pass their own policies Democrats are sure to find unity as elusive as the GOP has discovered.
First-off, taking over the House requires Democrats gain 24 seats. Historically, in midterms, and considering Democratic success in legislative elections this cycle, this does not seem like an impossibility but still remains somewhat of a stretch. These are not blue districts by any stretch but rather culturally purple to blue districts but fiscally conservative, many anchored in red state suburbs.
Even taking over the Senate is a heavy lift after Alabama. Democrats would need to flip both Nevada and Arizona, very doable, but also run the table in every Trump won Senate seat. That is highly unlikely as Trump is still fairly popular in several red state redoubts.
Still, let’s imagine they do. Or that they come close even to be a more functional opposition in the House. It is worth considering what a Democratic agenda, or lack of one, would look like.
Democratic unity has primarily been found in opposing Trump and the GOP agenda. African-Americans turned out in significant numbers for Doug Jones in Alabama and many suburban Republicans could not support a firebrand Republican who seemed to have a liking of young girls.
But opposition to Trump alone does not constitute a governing agenda. Nor does opposing a GOP tax bill you claim is “not populist enough.” Having an agenda is something Democrats need regardless of whether they win big next year.
Why? Because once a party takes power forming an agenda has come far too late. If a new Democratic Congress does not come in with a clear agenda they will likely be driven by events or simple opposition to the opposing party. This is not even mentioning Presidential elections have begun much earlier than the past and suck up all the oxygen in the room for the next two years after a midterm.
We have seen this play out once already this year over healthcare and what it did to Republicans after 2010. This year, Republicans came to power in DC without any meaningful agenda on healthcare other than to replace the ACA and the result was a mish-mash of policies that ultimately could not pass Senate moderate acceptance.
In 2011, Republican opposition to Obama seemed to be enough to carry them to victory the next year. But, as Obama and Democrats united around the idea of protecting the middle class and not shipping jobs overseas the GOP and Mitt Romney centered on “oppose, oppose, oppose.” The result was Republicans lost seats in the House and Senate. Obama won a second term decisively.
Obviously, if you are a Democrat today it is smart to run against the GOP tax cut. But, there needs to be something more than just that for your economic message. Perhaps Democrats could propose to rescind the tax cut or increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations and authorize it to go to infrastructure projects and education or social welfare spending.
Democrats can credibly claim they rolled out an agenda over the summer that includes this idea and others. But, in truth, they were mostly half-baked ideas that had little chance of passing a Democratic Caucus that despite being more progressive does still have some business friendly elements. Plus, not all those ideas will play well in well educated, fairly white, affluent districts with many corporate employees.
From immigration to taxes to healthcare the party is divided along cultural and economic lines. You have the economic populist of Elizbaeth Warren and impeach Trump message of her ilk. But, you also have the centrist message of suburban Democrats and red state Democratic Senators.
These views might play well to certain demographics but it is not the end all be all. For example, as we saw in GA-6 reaching out to minorities only goes so far. Your message needs to be broadly compelling and your policies need to be tailored to have the maximum benefit. This is how you win elections!
Democrats can certainly win a midterm on the basis of negative partisanship. But when it comes to 2020 and beyond being able to craft a compelling agenda is what will determine whether Democratic policies actually become law. It will determine whether the party stands united or divided and whether electoral blocs loyal to the party stay that way in election after election.