(J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

In an echo of what Republicans experienced after Barack Obama was elected and the tea party emerged as a force within their party, Democratic activists are beginning to ask whether their elected representatives are fighting hard enough against this administration and Republicans in Congress.

It’s an important question that will shape not only the next couple of elections but also the degree to which the GOP can advance a sweeping agenda that would take the country in a radical new direction. And right now, that argument is centered on the health-care bill that Senate Republicans are writing in secret and hoping to ram through to a vote before the public realizes what’s happening.

There’s an impulse to say that if President Trump is a disaster and the GOP agenda is a nightmare, then what congressional Democrats should do is fight, anywhere and everywhere, with every tool at their disposal. Some activists are concerned that Democrats are being too timid; peruse Facebook and Twitter and you’ll find a lot of comments about spineless Democrats once again folding in the face of Republican aggression.

But the question isn’t whether they’re fighting in the most dramatic way; it’s whether they’re fighting in the most effective way. If you’re going to argue that they aren’t, you have to be specific about what they should be doing instead, and what different outcome that alternate strategy would be likely to produce. That question becomes complicated because there are multiple goals Democrats have at the moment, among them:

  1. Find a way to defeat the GOP health-care bill.
  2. Maximize the chances of winning the House in 2018 (the Senate is theoretically possible but much tougher).
  3. To paraphrase Mitch McConnell, make Donald Trump a one-term president.

These are related but distinct goals, and each may require a different strategy. Let’s begin with health care. Stopping this bill is a practical challenge that must be undertaken on a very short timeline — McConnell is hoping to have his secret bill passed before July 4. It doesn’t matter whether anyone looks heroic fighting it or alienates Democratic primary voters; if the bill passes, it will be a failure on the part of every Democrat, politician or activist. There’s no moral victory to be found in a noble defeat here. Lives are literally at stake.

As Jeff Stein of Vox reported, Senate Democrats are so far unwilling to grind the Senate to a halt in order to protest the bill, which they could do because the chamber depends for much of its business on “unanimous consent” (if consent is withheld, they can’t proceed). Precisely because this bill is being created outside of the normal committee process, right now there’s nothing to stop — no hearings, no markups, no floor debate. Even if Democrats held up a bunch of unrelated Senate activity, McConnell could still bring the health-care bill up for a vote whenever he wants.

You can look at that and say “They aren’t fighting!” But it’s hard to make that argument unless you’re focused solely on symbolic actions. If they halted all Senate activity but didn’t actually impede this particular bill, it would mean the action was almost entirely symbolic. It might generate some news coverage that would focus the public and media back on health care, but it probably wouldn’t be much. You might claim that if Democrats ground the Senate to a halt, the public would rise up behind them, but I find that a little hard to believe.

Which means that while the Democrats can throw up some procedural roadblocks once the bill actually emerges, right now the biggest onus is on grass-roots activists to ramp up pressure on the Republican senators who might be persuaded to vote against the bill. And that’s the biggest problem at the moment: The grass-roots pressure on Congress has dissipated from where it was when the House bill was first proposed.

Members’ offices aren’t being flooded with the same volume of calls they were a couple of months ago, which means they may feel as though they can get away with voting for something as damaging as this bill. If they’re going to be persuaded otherwise, they need to be shown that there will be a high price to pay. Their Democratic colleagues can’t convince them of that; only citizens can.

What about the goal of winning back the House in 2018? How much does that depend on the actions of elected Democrats? The truth is that for Democrats to win a big victory in the midterms, two basic things are required: The public has to be dissatisfied enough with Trump to punish his party, and Democratic voters have to be riled up, angry and organized. The first factor is already in place; Trump’s approval ratings are only in the high 30s, and approval of the GOP is even worse. While it’s important for Democrats to put up a vigorous opposition to an unpopular president, there’s no evidence that the broader public thinks Democrats have been too accommodating toward this president.

As for the goal of keeping Trump from getting reelected, the question there is: What can Democrats do to keep his popularity low? They can do what’s in their power to propel the administration’s scandals forward, which they’re doing. Although they don’t have the power to issue subpoenas or call hearings, elected Democrats talk about Russia a lot, and nearly 200 Democrats are filing a lawsuit against Trump, alleging that he is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause. They can try to impede his legislative agenda to deprive him of anything that looks like an achievement, but that isn’t easy given that they don’t control either house of Congress. Their procedural tools are limited, and at most what they can do is drag things out; most of the lack of progress in Congress right now is because of Republicans’ own ineptitude and internal differences.

Which means that the primary power available to congressional Democrats in all these battles is their ability to raise a stink — to ask tough questions in hearings, to give interviews, to go on television and rail at the administration’s misdeeds and the villainy of the other side’s policy proposals. Which it sure looks as though they’re doing, even if they’ll surely make some mistakes along the way.

We tend to want friendly politicians to mirror our own emotions and make us cheer with dramatic gestures. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in the end it isn’t what determines whether we win or lose. Democrats may or may not achieve their short-term and medium-term goals, but the ultimate outcome of all these conflicts isn’t going to depend on whether their congressional representatives find some way to fight harder than they are already.