Colum­nists share their thoughts

The Record (Troy, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Dana Mil­bank Colum­nist Fol­low Dana Mil­bank on Twit­ter, @Mil­bank.

Find out what peo­ple have to say about lo­cal and na­tional is­sues.

Is “Demo­cratic dis­ci­pline” an oxy­moron?

For years, it was. But in the 2018 midterm elec­tions, Democrats pre­vailed in the House be­cause they man­aged to keep a sin­gu­lar and un­re­lent­ing fo­cus on health care — re­fus­ing to take Pres­i­dent Trump’s bait to en­gage in fights about MS-13, car­a­vans, so­cial­ism, tax in­creases and other dis­trac­tions du jour.

Since Democrats have fi­nally found the for­mula for de­feat­ing Trump, now comes the most im­por­tant ques­tion: Can they keep it to­gether?

There will be an im­me­di­ate clamor from the pro­gres­sive base for im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings and Medi­care-for-all leg­is­la­tion, as well as votes on the guns, abor­tion, LGBTQ rights and im­mi­gra­tion wish lists. Though over­sight is im­por­tant, there will be pres­sure for the party to con­sume it­self with in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the pres­i­dent and mul­ti­ple high­pro­file show­downs.

Democrats must re­sist this clamor. It is point­less to take up im­peach­ment and sin­gle-payer health care and the like with Trump in the White House and his syco­phants con­trol­ling the Se­nate. A GOP-style in­ves­tiga­tive orgy would help Trump po­lit­i­cally by pro­vid­ing him an easy foil. This would jeop­ar­dize the peo­ple who gave the Democrats their ma­jor­ity — first-term Democrats from sub­ur­ban swing districts. And it would deprive Democrats of their newly dis­cov­ered path to suc­cess: mes­sage dis­ci­pline.

“Mes­sage dis­ci­pline brought us into the ma­jor­ity; mes­sage dis­ci­pline will be nec­es­sary for us in or­der to keep the ma­jor­ity,” Rep. Ha­keem Jef­fries (N.Y.), co-chair­man of the House Demo­cratic Pol­icy and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mit­tee , told me. “The last time Democrats were in com­plete con­trol of gov­ern­ment we . . . failed to ad­e­quately com­mu­ni­cate what we were do­ing and why we were do­ing it. We can­not make that mis­take this time around or it will be a short­term ma­jor­ity.”

Jef­fries could be in a po­si­tion to make good on this. A ris­ing star, he is run­ning to be cau­cus chair­man, a top lead­er­ship post. And he, along with DPCC cochair­men Cheri Bus­tos (Ill.) and David N. Ci­cilline (R.I.), played a sig­nif­i­cant role in keep­ing House Democrats on mes­sage dur­ing the cam­paign. Again and again, they told their col­leagues to keep it sim­ple, even hand­ing out lam­i­nated cards with a Cam­paign­ing-for-Dum­mies-style mes­sage, just three bul­let points to­tal­ing 28 words:

“Lower your health care costs and pre­scrip­tion drug prices.”

“In­crease your pay through strong eco­nomic growth by re­build­ing Amer­ica.”

“Clean up cor­rup­tion to make Washington work for you.”

Democrats in the most com­pet­i­tive races did stick to the script, avoid­ing the siren songs of im­peach­ment and Medi­care­for-all, Trump’s race-tinged cul­tural war­fare and the Demo­cratic ten­dency to mud­dle the mes­sage with scores of pro­pos­als. Fifty-seven per­cent of proDemo­cratic ads in Oc­to­ber were on health care, the Wes­leyan Me­dia Project re­ports. That, as well as the GOP’s at­tempts to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act and its pro­tec­tions for pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions, helped el­e­vate health care to the No. 1 voter pri­or­ity, above the econ­omy, more than dou­bling its im­por­tance to Democrats and in­de­pen­dents since early 2017.

“The only way to suc­cess­fully shape pub­lic sen­ti­ment in the era of Don­ald Trump is to have a mes­sage that is clear, con­cise, com­pelling and re­peated over and over and over again,” Jef­fries said. “Do we ad­dress ev­ery sin­gle out­ra­geous thing that comes out of his mouth, or do we gov­ern, and mes­sage ac­cord­ingly, on our terms? For us to keep the ma­jor­ity we have to stay on mes­sage, which means a fo­cus on kitchen ta­ble, pocket book is­sues that unify the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

This is what the vot­ers asked for Tues­day.

The ma­jor­ity mak­ers for the Democrats were can­di­dates who, though gen­er­ally lib­eral, ap­pealed to moder­ate vot­ers in sub­ur­ban districts with non­ide­o­log­i­cal cam­paigns. “Democrats who at­tempted to win districts like that by ap­peal­ing to the left’s base and run­ning on is­sues like Medi­care-for-all didn’t fare as well,” Vox ob­served, declar­ing “2018 was not the year of the win­ning pro­gres­sive Demo­crat.” Bernie San­ders-style pro­gres­sives lost seats that were within Democrats’ grasp in Ne­braska, New York, Cal­i­for­nia, Wis­con­sin, In­di­ana, Penn­syl­va­nia and Vir­ginia.

All this also means that Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should re­claim the speaker’s gavel.

I agree with the many House Democrats who be­lieve the 78-year-old mi­nor­ity leader should an­nounce, prefer­ably be­fore party elec­tions this month, that this will be her last term and that she will pre­side over an or­derly tran­si­tion to younger lead­er­ship.

She seems to un­der­stand the need for new blood, call­ing her­self “a tran­si­tional fig­ure” dur­ing an in­ter­view with the Los Angeles Times last month. But she is ex­cep­tional at keep­ing Democrats in line, a skill akin to the prover­bial herd­ing of cats. With no need to pla­cate party fac­tions for fu­ture lead­er­ship elec­tions, she could be a mer­ci­less dis­ci­plinar­ian for this ses­sion.

“Democrats will not get off track,” Jef­fries vowed. “We’re go­ing to stay fo­cused like a laser beam on the is­sues we pre­sented to the Amer­i­can peo­ple in seiz­ing the ma­jor­ity.”

Be dis­ci­plined, Democrats.

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