OPINION — The 116th Congress has arrived, and less than two weeks into the session, America has already tasted the fruits of its electoral labors last November. It’s been quite a debut for House Democrats.
The country has been treated to profanity-laced rants from new Democratic members as a breathless, media-driven cult of personality grows around the newly-elected freshman class. Voters, desperate for real-world solutions to cost-of-living issues, have seen the Democratic Caucus’ increasingly dominant left wing call for budget-busters from a “Green New Deal” to single-payer health care while studiously avoiding a solution to reopen government.
More senior Democrats have shown no inclination to even consider a compromise on border security funding to end the shutdown — the same kind of funding many of these leading Democrats voted for in the pre-Trump era, before walls became “immoral.” When it comes to political missteps, little compares to the Schumer-Pelosi “American Gothic” moment responding to the president’s border security Oval Office address. It couldn’t have been a bigger disaster if Republicans had choreographed it themselves.
Meanwhile, the new Democratic committee chairs are tripping over each other to get Trump investigations off the ground or in the air, reinforcing expectations of an investigation-not-legislation Democratic strategy.
To be fair, Republicans had their “Steve King” moment, as the Iowa congressman went way over the line with his racist remarks to the New York Times. He was roundly condemned by his own party, and the new Republican leadership quickly reacted by refusing to seat him on committees.
But the most important takeaway from this first two weeks of a newly configured Congress is that, contrary to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s conciliatory opening day speech, Democrats have opted for a governing doctrine focused on one thing only — stopping Donald Trump at any cost and by any means necessary.
The newly-elected Speaker told the first meeting of the 116th Congress that Americans “want a Congress that delivers results for the people, opening up opportunity and lifting up their lives.” She was right on that point.
Later in her remarks, Pelosi said, “I pledge that this Congress will be transparent, bipartisan and unifying; that we will seek to reach across the aisle in this chamber and across the divisions in this great nation.” It was the right thing to say, but it’s also where reality parted company, given the anti-Trump governing doctrine her party caucus has clearly decided upon in these first weeks of her speakership.
Sadly, that’s not what the American people voted for in November. Here’s perhaps an even sadder commentary: it is exactly what voters expected.
In our early December Winning the Issues survey, we looked at voter perceptions and expectations for the new Congress and found that there is a significant difference between what the public thinks Democrats should do and what voters believe they will do. Not surprisingly, there was a partisan divide on the question.
In the survey, voters were asked which of two approaches the incoming Democratic majority should take: “oppose President Trump and Republicans to stop their policies” or “work with President Trump and Republicans to solve issues.”
The data show the electorate believes Democrats should work with Republicans and the president instead of simply opposing GOP policies by 56-34 percent, with independents at 56-24 percent and Republicans at 81-15. Democratic voters took the opposite tack, saying that their majority should oppose the president and Republicans by a 58-33 percent margin.
But clearly, voters don’t exactly have great expectations for the Democratic majority to do the right thing. When asked which of those same two approaches Democrats will actually take, 62-26 percent of the overall electorate thought Democrats would choose to oppose Trump and the Republicans.
When it comes to lowered expectations, the partisan divide nearly disappears. GOP voters said Democrats will oppose Republicans by 61-35 percent. That’s similar to what independents (60-19 percent) and Democrats (64-24 percent) said.
When we asked voters in a subsequent survey to rank the importance of an issue or news story in deciding how to vote, the need to get things done in Washington and get the parties to work together topped the list. It was the No. 2 determinant for Republicans, behind border security, and the No. 3 issue for Democrats, behind health care.
But most important, it was the No. 1 issue for independents — the voter group that determined the 2018 election and will likely do so again in 2020. Independents want solutions, not partisan bickering, and the shutdown debate over border security only adds to their cynicism.
On the government shutdown, the first key issue out of the box, Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues have offered little more than antagonistic talking points instead of entering into good faith negotiations. Initially characterizing the president’s proposal for a border security wall as “immoral” and nothing more than a “vanity project” for all practical purposes took negotiating off the table.
For all her talk of unity on Day One, Pelosi’s approach to date has been my-way-or-the-highway. This is not the behavior of a congressional leader who is sincere about working with the opposition party to get things done and find a compromise that can get the government open and functioning again.
It is the stuff of stalemate.
This kind of behavior may turn on base Democrats, but it turns off independents — and losing independents loses elections.
Democrats need to remember that it was a majority coalition, including independents, that put them in the majority — not their base alone. Independent voters expect them to work with Republicans and the president to solve issues like border security. But Democrats’ approach goes against what independents just voted for: an end to gridlock.
Democrats don’t necessarily have to agree to everything Trump wants, but they should at least come to the table, show they are acting in good faith and try to get to a solution.
If the Democrats’ actions of the past two weeks are any indication of their intentions for the next two years, then the 2018 majority coalition may be back on the market.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.
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