When Americans overwhelmingly voted to give Congress to the Democratic Party in 2006, party leaders had a reasonably ambitious agenda. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that the 110th Congress would be “the most honest and open Congress in history” and announced a “100-Hour Plan” to pass a slate of bills before the president even had a chance to deliver his State of the Union address.
The biggest enduring legacy of the plan would be raising the federal minimum wage to its current level, $7.25 per hour. But bills requiring Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cutting interest rates on student loans died in the Senate, even though Democrats controlled it, too. No matter: Democrats acted like they had all the time in the world to achieve their bolder goals, if they only waited out the lame-duck George W. Bush administration. After all, the theory went, demographics meant they were on the way to a permanent majority.
That majority would be over and done with in four years, halfway through the first term of a Democratic president elected with the largest share of the popular vote in a generation. The window closed. Republicans became an older, whiter and somehow much angrier coalition, and they used the serendipity of taking power in a census year to rig legislative maps wherever they could, to stay in power by any means necessary. Action and (sometimes brutal and rapid) reaction is the story of our era.
With Democrats about to control the House of Representatives again, I have been thinking about that last majority: what it achieved, what it was too cautious to attempt and what that caution actually bought. Because we may be asking the same questions about the next Democratic majority sooner than we think. The lesson of the careful restraint that Democrats showed the last time they controlled either chamber of Congress — and of the Republican ferocity since then — is simple: Your job is not to win power and then maintain it. Your job is to win power and then use it, with the knowledge that you won’t have it forever or even, most likely, for very long at all.
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Everything Democrats pushed through between 2007 and 2011 was rendered less effective by their cautious impulses. This is not to say that better results would have been achievable if President Barack Obama or Democratic leaders had simply wanted them more or “pushed harder”; the limited political imaginations of centrist and moderate lawmakers, and of the party strategists looking forward to the next election, were to blame. Determined to slow things down to protect their majority, Democrats ended up losing that majority without addressing some of the most pressing problems the nation faced.
The economic stimulus in 2009 was urgently necessary but was made too small for political, not economic, reasons. The Affordable Care Act was a series of long-overdue consumer protections and a lifesaving expansion of the welfare state grafted onto a kludgy mess of a program for the individual insurance marketplace, with many of its most theoretically popular elements — like a public insurance option, or a Medicare “buy-in” for Americans 50 and older — killed to appease conservative Democrats and win the support of health-care industry lobbyists. The Dodd-Frank banking reforms, which ostensibly aimed to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis, entailed, like the ACA, months of closed-door negotiations with Republicans who’d go on to vote nearly unanimously against them. We’ll see how the banks do when the world economy blows up next, but they certainly look big and interconnected enough these days to cause a bit of trouble again.
Here’s what Democrats didn’t even send to Obama’s desk: bills to reduce carbon emissions, or make voting easy and universal and secure, or grow union membership and support workers looking to organize. Obviously, there’s more they didn’t get to, but carbon emissions and union support were on the agenda until they were abandoned by skittish Democrats, and voting reform should’ve been part of every Democrat’s Day One platform since Nov. 8, 2000. We’ll face the consequences of their caution for years to come.
That caution didn’t save them. The shock special election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts in January 2010 was the first sign that the majority was in trouble. The usual voices urged moderation. Lanny Davis called on Democrats to be “a party that is willing to meet half-way with conservatives and Republicans even if that means only step-by-step reforms on health care and other issues that do not necessarily involve big-government solutions.” He urged them to “stop listening to the strident, purist base of our party who seem to prefer defeat to winning elections and no change at all if they don’t get all the change they want.”
Popular telling has it that the backlash to these huge Democratic bills, the ACA in particular, led to the tea party wave in 2010. But it was just backlash, period, to this new coalition, led by a black president, using its power in any way. The backlash would’ve raged across the country if the stimulus had been half the size and if Obamacare had no individual mandate. The political result would’ve been the same with a larger stimulus, a public option and a carbon tax, too, except that after the 2010 bloodbath, we’d have had Republicans in control of Congress and . . . a stronger economy, a public option and a carbon tax.
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There is only so much Democrats can do next year, in control of only one house of Congress with a Republican White House and a conservative Supreme Court. They can’t realistically expect to pass any legislation. But if there’s any reason to be hopeful about the otherwise uninspiring fact that so many Democratic leaders are familiar faces from the George W. Bush era, it’s that they spent the last two years of his presidency aggressively investigating him, making up quickly for six years of indulgence by congressional Republicans of his team’s mismanagement and politicization of the government. The one thing Democrats will be in a position to do next year — investigate and expose what Trump and his appointees are doing — is something they actually managed to do last time they were in power, too.
They did so then in spite of warnings from the pundit class not to go “too far.” It is long forgotten now, but the conventional wisdom in 2006 held that investigating Bush aggressively would be political suicide. That May, Slate’s John Dickerson, watching Pelosi (D-Calif.) mention the party’s intention to launch investigations of the president, wrote: “Across the country, vulnerable Republican candidates are saying thank you to Pelosi. The GOP congressional majorities may now be secure.”
Dickerson was far from alone in thinking that outraged voters rejecting the Bush administration would also somehow be turned off by a party promising to investigate its misdeeds. “Pelosi’s vision of a subpoena-filled 2007 appeals to her party’s most liberal supporters,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the New Yorker . “But there is a worry that such a tack might alienate moderates, and that it would motivate otherwise dispirited Republicans to go to the polls.”
Thankfully, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) went through with their investigations regardless. One of them ended with the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose shifty testimony about his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys infuriated even some Republican lawmakers. In the end, scandals were uncovered and publicized, Republicans embarrassed and demoralized, and the Bush administration grew more and more unpopular even before the world economy blew up on its watch. And it was all very good, politically, for Democrats.
It is still an oddly common belief in Washington, though, that the American people prefer not to have abuses of office investigated, even after two years of Trumpian abuses perverse enough to help Bush’s reputation win undeserved rehabilitation. Here’s the venerable Al Hunt, this year: “It would also be counterproductive for committees to spend time looking backward at controversies like the ethics scandals that forced out former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, or at whether Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh told the truth during his confirmation hearings. Those are yesterday’s issues.”
That same magnanimous attitude, of course, led Republicans to wage complete and total opposition to Obama until they won power back and halted any major progress on his agenda.
The GOP understands urgency: It took control of the Senate in 2014 and never looked back. With Trump in the White House, Republicans have spent the past two years jamming young, ultraconservative judges onto the courts, passing an immense tax cut for their donors, trimming the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and nearly repealing the Affordable Care Act. That push was defeated not by a waffling moderate worried about reelection — all the waffling Republican moderates either fell in line or decided to quit — but by a literally dying senator whose objection to the bill was procedural, not political. Republicans have governed like they know they might get only one shot at it. The lone missed opportunity was that Paul Ryan didn’t take an ax to Social Security and Medicare on his way out the door, but the GOP still might try to sneak in some cuts during the lame-duck session. None of that made it any easier for any Republican to win reelection this past week. But Republican leaders know that’s not the point of exercising power.
Now that the Democrats have won one chamber back, they shouldn’t be forgiving when it comes to criminality and corruption. That doesn’t mean the new House majority should punish its political enemies. But it should attempt to reintroduce the idea that there could be actual consequences for unethical and criminal behavior by people in the White House.
None of us actually know what wins elections. Majorities are lost in an instant, no matter how carefully calibrated and poll-tested leaders’ positions are. The Democrats will hand the gavel back to a Republican one day. Every Democrat elected Tuesday should govern like they know they’ll get only one shot at leaving a legacy.
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