The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The House Democratic majority risks the same dysfunction as the Republicans. But do Americans care?

After pushing off questions about Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi until after the election, many non-incumbent Democrats are still dodging questions about her. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Congress has been back only a day and already Democratic leadership has been pulled from both ends of its own party.

At one end are progressives who are withholding support for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House and are demanding that Democrats take up a bold, ambitious agenda, such as Medicare-for-All. At the other are so-called moderates, who know that with divided government, nothing will ever be enacted into law without compromise.

Since Democrats' big victory on election night, Pelosi has talked up bipartisanship and seeking inroads with Republicans on issues such as infrastructure investments and preserving protections for Americans with preexisting conditions.

The progressive wing of the party isn’t thrilled with her instinct to work with the Trump White House and Republicans after so many years of the GOP resisting any compromise with them.

And they may have public opinion on their side.

As Americans' political views become more polarized, there’s been a significant shift in the number of people who want to see compromise vs. wanting a candidate who will stand by their principles. For years, polls showed that a majority of voters valued compromise, but a Pew Research poll conducted in March found that “roughly half of Americans say they prefer politicians who stick to their positions (53 percent), while slightly fewer say they like those who make compromises with people they disagree with (44 percent). This represents a substantial shift from July 2017, when 58 percent of the public said they preferred politicians who compromised compared with 39 percent who said they liked politicians who stick with their positions.”

Notably, where Republicans have long valued ideological purity, increasingly, Democrats are as well. Republicans who wanted to see compromise dropped just slightly from 46 percent to 44 percent between July 2017 and March, but Democrats dipped dramatically from 69 percent to 46 percent.

“A number of [Democratic] members … prefer to spend their life in the fetal position, rocking in the corner of a room,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told new members at an orientation Monday. “We don’t do that. We’re the folks out there trying to advocate for big change. We’re going to fight like hell to get those things done, and that’s what we’re going to expect out of leadership, as well.”

Of the 50-some newly elected House Democrats, around 20 have aligned themselves with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, giving the group a membership of around 90 and making it a powerful voting bloc. They did not come to Washington to be wallflowers, as evidenced by self-described democratic socialist Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (N.Y.) participation in a protest Tuesday in Pelosi’s office over environmental issues.

But the House majority was won for Democrats where it so often is: in the swing districts where voters are less ideological and more concerned with Washington functioning. A number of new members hail from suburbs in purple states where a Republican either retired or lost last week. Of the more than 30 seats Democrats flipped, most of the winning candidates were endorsed by the moderate New Democrat Coalition caucus.

A handful of Democrats who are involved with the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a bipartisan group that meets to discuss compromise but has yet to see its ideas rise beyond paper, wrote Pelosi a letter Tuesday threatening to withdraw their support for her if they didn’t receive a “written, public commitment” to push for changes to House rules to help the chamber “govern again.”

As a whole, the House Democratic majority next year will only have an advantage of, at most, 16 seats, so any fissures in the party could stall Democrats' agenda at a time when they are desperate to put up a unified front against President Trump and Republicans. While the focus now is on Democrats' desire to dig in on investigations of the Trump administration, campaign and businesses, there are also legislative promises they made on issues such as health care and gun control that they want to force votes on ahead of 2020.

But deflections and discord within the caucus over how to proceed threaten to put House Democrats in the same situation House Republicans faced for the past eight years, when the most conservative lawmakers balked at their leadership’s every move. The rightward turn of the party, and its embrace of Trump, caused many “centrist” Republicans who faced difficult reelections this year to throw up their hands and quit the game. Former congressman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) used to call them the “governing wing” of the party.

"I’ll ask everybody to take a look at the so-called Freedom Caucus and see where they got the Republican Party,” the assistant Democratic leader, James E. Clyburn (S.C.), said Tuesday in an interview with The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis. “I think they’re the ones that got them into the shape they’re in now.”