The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats missed an opportunity in the Oval Office

President Trump debates with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), left, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), right, as Vice President Pence watches during a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Democratic leaders Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) missed an opportunity in their Oval Office meeting with President Trump yesterday.

The leaders came ready to make the president own the potential government shutdown, and Trump was only too happy to oblige, saying he would proudly claim responsibility for closing the government in order to build his border wall and protect the American people from the criminals and drugs he claims threaten them. The exchange was like so many political skirmishes these days: a bloody split decision in which both sides claim victory. Supporters of Democrats retreated to their corner feeling pumped, and Republicans did the same. But Democrats in Congress can play a smarter and longer game with Trump by fighting him in less predictable ways.

Pelosi and Schumer came to the White House locked into the narrow mind-set of the latest legislative standoff. Their goal was to offer Trump some money for his border wall (all-but-knowing it would not be enough for him) and then make him look petulant for demanding a government shutdown instead of accepting their compromise. In other words, they tried to win the news cycle.

But in the Trump era, that’s old-fashioned thinking because there are separate news cycles now; one on news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC, and another for conservatives on Fox News, etc. Democrats need to adapt to this reality and work to not only knock Trump off his game by winning the news cycle his supporters see but also to surprise him and the American people with a more future-oriented agenda.

For example, what if Pelosi and Schumer had presented the president yesterday with an agenda “for the people” (that was their midterms slogan) that included much of what they just campaigned on: lowering health-care costs, infrastructure investment, tougher government corruption laws and voting rights protections?

They could have used the meeting to push that agenda, and if they wanted to add a zinger, they could have asked the president if he would commit, for good measure, to allowing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to finish his job without interference and to promise that he wouldn’t pardon Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn or Michael Cohen. On the subject of the border wall and government funding, the supposed topic of the meeting, the Democratic leaders could have been more subtle and even playful: “Mr. President, the American people are confused: You said Mexico was going to pay for the wall. Why punish the American people because you can’t keep your promise?”

It has been more than a month since Democrats made significant gains in the midterm elections, and they haven’t given their supporters, especially the ones who flipped from Trump and will be essential to further gains in 2020, much of a reason to feel confident about their switch.

Battles over leadership and government-shutdown brinkmanship sap political enthusiasm. Democrats should get back to talking about and doing the things that people left Trump for and want from them. A pool spray in the Oval Office may not be the best setting to lay out a message, but Trump got his through. Let’s hope Democrats take better advantage of their next opportunity.