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Opinion How Democrats can turn up the heat on Trump — and win the battle of ideas

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks to demonstrators Nov. 8 before a march in downtown Seattle in support of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks to demonstrators Nov. 8 before a march in downtown Seattle in support of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation. (Genna Martin/AP)

House Democrats won a majority in the midterms with a focus on health care and other kitchen-table issues. When the next Congress begins in January, though, Republican control of the Senate means that Democrats will have little ability to advance the policies they campaigned on. But even with a divided government and a president who is more interested in sowing division than developing legislation, Democrats can lay out markers for a bold alternative to Trumpism.

After two years of Republicans turning a blind eye to rampant corruption, House Democrats are widely expected to focus on investigating the Trump administration. Yet while they’ll have a bottomless well of scandals and conflicts of interest to look into, progressive Democrats have a chance to do more than simply turn up the heat on President Trump and his cronies. With members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in line to chair 13 committees, the incoming majority can also connect much-needed oversight to a bold policy vision that frames a clear choice for voters heading into 2020.

One issue that the midterms highlighted is the fight for fair elections. Last week, Democratic leaders took a step in the right direction, signaling that the first bill they introduce in January will be a sweeping package of reforms aimed at strengthening democracy. The plan would counter the Republican Party’s war on voting by establishing universal voter registration and fortifying the Voting Rights Act. It would fight partisan gerrymandering by putting redistricting power in the hands of independent commissions. And it would reduce the influence of money in politics by proposing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Citizens United. By forcing these ideas into the national conversation, progressive leaders can create a stark contrast with Republicans who are, as we’ve seen in recent contests, shamefully determined to make elections less democratic.

They can sharpen that contrast by showing the same unapologetic commitment to empowering working people. For instance, even the watered-down “Better Deal” agenda that Democratic leaders introduced last year included plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, bring down prescription drug prices and rein in the power of corporate monopolies. Progressives can fulfill the party’s promises to voters by fighting to pass legislation based on these proposals. And they can also convene high-profile committee hearings to magnify the challenges that working people face, as well as Republicans’ disgraceful lack of interest in addressing them.

And they shouldn’t stop there. Midterm voters sent a loud message by electing a new generation of progressive activists to Congress. Party leaders would be wise to amplify their voices and the ideas that made them so compelling to voters and movement activists across the country. That means bold initiatives including “Medicare-for-all,” tuition-free college and a Green New Deal should be on the table. So should progressive ideas for better government, such as the anti-corruption legislation championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). It doesn’t matter that these proposals would be dead on arrival in the Senate. By insisting on a battle of ideas, progressive Democrats can fundamentally alter the terms of the debate, much as right-wing Republicans did when they began passing Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budgets after retaking the majority in 2010.

While the need for accountability is urgent, the conventional wisdom that House Democrats’ main function in the next Congress will be investigating Trump is incomplete. What the discussion often leaves out — and what the incoming majority can’t afford to forget — is to whom that accountability is actually owed: the American people.

In other words, holding Trump accountable doesn’t just mean showing how he’s broken the law. It means exposing how Trumpism is hurting working Americans. It means shining a light on how entrenched interests and big dark money have used the Trump administration to rig the rules even further in their favor while rolling back workers’ rights, trampling environmental protections, and fleecing students and consumers. It means demanding better from government — and proving to voters that, on the issues they care about the most, there is an alternative.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

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