By David K. Shipler
The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is faced with a tricky feat of navigation. It must appeal to the upsurge of national outrage against President Trump from the left while steering a course that will also attract the respect of moderate Americans near the center. And to do that, its committees that draft bills and conduct investigations will need to find an elusive sweet spot where liberal principles meet pragmatic governance—with broad appeal.
It goes without saying that the behavior of the House Democrats will set the stage for the 2020 presidential election. Trump will vilify them no matter what, but if they give him ammunition by flying off into fits of extreme rhetoric and blizzards of subpoenas, they run the risk of appearing politically vindictive and irresponsible. If such accusations stick, they will stain whatever Democratic candidate emerges as the party’s nominee.
Therefore, every argument and assertion has to be well-phrased and factually unassailable. Every subpoena—and there should be many—has to be carefully supported by legitimate grounds for investigative necessity. No flamboyant grand-standing, no smear campaigns, no positions too radical to woo back independent Trump voters are likely to work.
Furthermore, whatever positions and policies the Democrats adopt need to be explained and justified better than Nancy Pelosi is usually able to do. She’s an accomplished fund-raiser and herder of the cats in her caucus, and she can get legislation passed. But let’s face it, she’s not a great messenger on broadcast news, the unfortunate test these days of a successful politician. Too often she can’t put a persuasive sentence together. Either she has to practice her lines or let a more articulate Democrat do the talking.
Liberals are feeling too heady after the mid-terms, with voters having elected Native Americans, Muslims, and record-breaking numbers of women. It’s reasonable to think that the tide has begun turning against a Republican Party bent on dismantling much of the good that government does for the people. But the operative word is “begun,” for this is not a revolution so much as a stirring, perhaps the prelude to a sea change that might mature eventually into a dramatic expulsion from power of the pro-rich, anti-minority misogynists who have diminished America.
Not necessarily, however. Republicans increased their majority in the Senate, let’s remember, even after two years in which the head of their party repeatedly disgraced the country. Despite (or because of) Trump’s hateful insults, perpetual lies, impulsive incompetence, and cavalier threats to allies and traditional security interests, he still gets approval from about 40 percent of Americans. That should tell Democrats that the problem they confront is not only Trump. It’s a large minority of American citizens.
Take Stacie Davidson, who co-founded a parents group to oppose the Trump administration’s push to weaken Obama-era restrictions on a carcinogenic chemical, TCE. The substance, used in manufacturing and dry cleaning, has been leaking from an old industrial site in Franklin, Indiana, where children have been suffering from a high incidence of cancer, leading to early deaths.
Yet Davidson, whose 10-year-old stepson was diagnosed with leukemia, voted for Trump and still supports him, The New York Times reported. “His loosening of EPA regulations, it’s infuriating,” she told the reporter. “What we’re fighting for is seemingly being undone right now.” But then she went on: “Trump’s a businessman. There are great things he can do for our country. But he’s used to building high rises for money. He’s not as environmentally savvy. Our hope is that he surrounds himself with people who are more knowledgeable.” It was not clear that the reporter asked her if she knew that the people he had surrounded himself with were former lobbyists for polluting industries, enemies of the agency she looks to for protection, and aggressive dismantlers of health and safety regulations.
Stacie Davidson is an example of what Democrats have to contend with. Her county, which voted heavily for Trump, should be stop No. 1 on any Democratic listening and speaking tour. Conveying an understanding and empathy for powerless people, and explaining the clear differences that Democrats could make in their lives, is key to making political inroads into Trump’s constituency.
The United States is still a fairly conservative country, averse to such key elements in the liberal agenda as a single-payer health care system for all, tough environmental and safety regulations on business, and sufficient funding for public education and anti-poverty programs. You can’t swerve too far left and expect to win, as satisfying as such a swing would be to “progressives,” as many liberals now call themselves.
Trump’s appeal to rural and blue-collar constituencies has not substantially eroded, even though some are being hurt by his tariff war, safety deregulation, and other policies. Their discomfort over the society’s changes in demographics and cultural values remains intact, a challenge for Democrats who embrace diversity and social reform. They and their next presidential candidate must somehow find ways to address the anxieties respectfully, yet without compromising important principles.
Negotiating the economic vulnerability, marginalization, and alienation from government that helped propel Trump into the White House will require finesse and compassion by the House Democrats from their perch in the Washington that so many in the hinterlands despise. Stalemate and obstruction are bound to characterize this divided Congress, leading to the constant jockeying to get ahead in the blame game that we’ve seen already over the government shutdown.
The country needs positive approaches to knotty problems such as border security. So far, the Democratic leadership has failed to make an impact on public perceptions with a detailed plan, if they have one, that does not involve Trump’s ridiculous wall. They’re willing to go along with some expenditures, including repairs to the existing barriers and enhanced electronic and drone technology. But where is their smart and sensible set of specific measures, with a list of costs, to address what is, in fact, a real issue of illegal crossings?
This will be an odd waiting period for the Democratic Party, after taking the House and before the presidential primaries—before, one hopes, they choose a nominee who combines all the ideals of a perfect candidate: solid, decent, civil, informed, completely candid, genuine, caring, and just to the left of center. In other words, somebody who finds that sweet spot and hits a home run.