So if Trump orders Attorney General William P. Barr to announce a criminal investigation of the Democratic presidential nominee, or begins coordinating his campaign’s social media disinformation efforts with the Kremlin, or does some other atrociously corrupt thing, I suppose that in response Democrats will ... put out a white paper on prescription drug prices.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about prescription drug prices, of course — in and of itself. And I’m sure they have polling indicating that health care is at or near the top of the list of things that people want Congress to address. The problem is that since Democrats can’t actually make any laws at the moment, their highest priority should be defeating Trump.
That requires a division of labor, in which everyone uses the resources at his or her disposal to their maximum effect.
Think about it this way: Before the 2016 election, congressional Republicans did not say, “We’re not going to mount the eighth investigation of Benghazi — after all, this election isn’t really about Benghazi.” They used their institutional power to bedevil Hillary Clinton with bogus charges of malfeasance because that was something they could do. They even admitted it — as Rep. Kevin McCarthy said in September 2015: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
It might seem like an abdication of Congress’ primary role — passing bills to solve pressing national problems — for Democrats to spend their time trying to highlight everything that’s wrong with Trump and his administration. But the problem with focusing only on policy issues that are substantively important to the American people is that the American people are unlikely to notice.
Were you aware that House Democrats passed almost 600 bills in 2019? They covered a broad range of critical issues — health care, gun violence, political reform, the minimum wage and a lot more. Voters have no idea, because the House’s legislative efforts got almost no media coverage, and the bills fell into the legislative black hole that is Mitch McConnell’s Senate.
There wasn’t anything wrong with writing and passing those bills; having that work already done means that if they’re fortunate enough to have a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate in 2021, they can press forward quickly with a comprehensive agenda. But it didn’t do much to make Democratic control of the government more likely.
For that they have to win in 2020, and that starts with the presidential race. Yes, Democratic representatives need to be able to tell their constituents they’ve been working hard on their behalf — so when they’re back home, they can talk about those 600 bills they passed until they’re blue in the face. But this election is going to be about Trump. If he doesn’t lose, Democrats don’t win.
And of course people tell pollsters they want Congress to address health care and not worry about investigating the president. People also tell pollsters that they hate negative campaigning. But it still works.
To repeat, Democrats need a division of labor. There isn’t one message all Democrats need to communicate in the same way to voters to beat Trump. There are a series of them — about his corruption, about his debasement of the office he holds, about his unwillingness to solve problems such as rising health-care costs and income inequality, about his relentless service to corporations and the wealthy.
Because the House has at least some ability to reveal, explore and draw attention to this president’s misdeeds, that’s what it should be doing. If Democrats are worried that the voters will punish them for being too mean to Trump, they’ve already lost.