Look­ing ahead to 2018, ob­sta­cles for Democrats might be time, them­selves

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - @PKCapi­tol paul.kane@wash­post.com

When House Repub­li­cans posted enough votes to pass their plan to re­vamp the na­tion’s health-care sys­tem Thurs­day, Democrats broke out into song. So con­vinced it was a po­lit­i­cal loser, Demo­cratic law­mak­ers sang “Nah Nah Hey Hey Kiss Him Good­bye” the way vic­to­ri­ous sports fans jeer their op­po­nents.

Their head of can­di­date re­cruit­ment guar­an­teed that Repub­li­cans would “pay a price” in 2018, say­ing he planned to use the con­tro­ver­sial leg­is­la­tion as an in­cen­tive for prospec­tive Demo­cratic can­di­dates to jump into races. “I have a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of hours blocked out to make phone calls,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) said.

But Democrats might be guilty of some pre­ma­ture ex­u­ber­ance. There are two ma­jor ob­sta­cles in their path to put­ting to­gether a strong cam­paign to win back the House ma­jor­ity: their own in­ter­nal di­vi­sions and time.

Democrats are — slowly but surely — en­gag­ing in the sort of in­fight­ing that usu­ally hap­pens right after a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion loss. That reck­on­ing was de­layed be­cause President Trump’s stun­ning vic­tory last Novem­ber cre­ated a fierce en­ergy among Democrats to fight the new ad­min­is­tra­tion at ev­ery turn, forg­ing a com­mon bond from the party’s coastal lib­er­als to its Mid­west­ern mod­er­ates.

That early anti-Trump unity, how­ever, pa­pered over deep di­vi­sions about what went wrong dur­ing the cam­paign and what the party should do ahead of the 2018 midterm elec­tions. That’s all chang­ing now.

A perfect ex­am­ple came last week when House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in an in­ter­view with The Washington Post, dis­missed com­plaints from abor­tion rights ac­tivists who do not want party re­sources to help any an­tiabor­tion Demo­crat.

“This is the Demo­cratic Party, this is not a rub­ber stamp party. This is a party of great di­ver­sity,” Pelosi told The Post on Tues­day, not­ing that many Catholic fam­ily mem­bers who she grew up with in Bal­ti­more’s Lit­tle Italy neigh­bor­hood re­main op­posed to abor­tion. “You think I’m kick­ing them out of the Demo­cratic Party?”

Within hours, Pelosi’s com­ments sparked a fury.

Some praised Pelosi’s can­dor, rec­og­niz­ing that the Af­ford­able Care Act and other key items of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would not have passed in 2009 and 2010 with­out the sup­port of an­tiabor­tion House Democrats.

“Straight for­ward and sen­si­ble,” David Ax­el­rod, the for­mer top strate­gist to Barack Obama, tweeted. Others lashed out at Pelosi. “En­cour­ag­ing and sup­port­ing anti-choice can­di­dates leads to bad pol­icy out­comes that vi­o­late women’s rights and en­dan­ger our eco­nomic se­cu­rity,” Il­yse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice Amer­ica, told The Post.

“We are dis­mayed by Mi­nor­ity Leader Pelosi’s out-of-touch and self-serv­ing state­ments that throw women and their right to make their own moral de­ci­sions un­der the bus,” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said in a state­ment.

The fact that Pelosi — a hero­ine to most lib­er­als, the first fe­male House speaker and a leader on women’s rights for decades — came un­der fire speaks vol­umes about how much Demo­cratic griev­ances are left to be fully aired be­fore the midterms.

In March, Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.), an­other lib­eral icon, backed off her orig­i­nal sup­port of Ben Car­son as sec­re­tary of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment. She had sup­ported Car­son in a com­mit­tee vote and then faced an out­cry from an­tiTrump ac­tivists, lead­ing to a Daily Kos story head­lined “The Re­sis­tance Crum­bles.” She then voted against Car­son in the full Se­nate five weeks later.

Other dis­putes are com­ing to the fore­front be­cause elec­tions are un­der­way again, re­open­ing old wounds from the hard-fought 2016 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary be­tween Sen. Bernie San­ders (IVt.) and for­mer sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton.

The Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has de­voted nearly un­lim­ited re­sources to the spe­cial elec­tion for a House seat in the sub­urbs north of At­lanta. It’s con­sid­ered a beta test for the 2018 plan to tar­get dozens of Repub­li­can dis­tricts in highly ed­u­cated, di­verse sub­urbs out­side Philadel­phia, New York, Los An­ge­les and other cities.

But San­ders did not en­dorse the lead­ing Demo­cratic can­di­date, Jon Os­soff, un­til after he fell just shy of the 50 per­cent thresh­old in ini­tial bal­lot­ing, forc­ing him into a June runoff elec­tion.

Al­most no re­sources went to a spe­cial elec­tion in south­ern Kansas, and a mod­est sum has gone to the race for Mon­tana’s at­large seat in the House, prompt­ing San­ders to de­liver a re­buke to the DCCC for not do­ing as much to help in those races.

For their gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­na­tion, Vir­ginia Democrats will de­cide be­tween for­mer con­gress­man Tom Per­riello, sup­ported by San­ders, or Ralph Northam, the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor who has the back­ing of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a long­time con­fi­dant of the Clin­tons.

Demo­cratic lead­ers like to say that they aren’t di­vided on pol­icy grounds the way Repub­li­cans are. GOP lead­ers in Congress tend to sup­port free trade and have more open views on im­mi­gra­tion, while their con­ser­va­tive base has em­braced much of Trump’s Amer­ica-first na­tivist vi­sion.

Those di­vi­sions were on dis­play as House Repub­li­cans strug­gled for two months to find the votes to pass their re­peal of the ACA, cre­at­ing more op­ti­mism among Democrats that they can win big in next year’s elec­tions.

But there is so much time un­til then. In the pre­vi­ous three elec­tion cy­cles, Democrats es­sen­tially won the mes­sag­ing wars in the odd year, only to floun­der in the even year when bal­lots were ac­tu­ally cast.

Take 2011, when the new Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity ap­proved the fis­cal blue­print of Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the fu­ture House speaker who then chaired the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee. It in­cluded a pro­posal to turn Medi­care into a voucher pro­gram, and that spring, Democrats won a spe­cial elec­tion in Up­state New York largely by cam­paign­ing against Ryan’s bud­get.

But Ryan’s Medi­care pro­posal went nowhere and faded from the pub­lic con­scious­ness, even after he was cho­sen as the Repub­li­can vice-pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2012.

There’s a real chance that Ryan’s health-care leg­is­la­tion could fade away as se­nior Se­nate Repub­li­cans vow to write their own ver­sion of the bill.

That’s why Democrats are fo­cus­ing on cre­at­ing a uni­fied front in the com­ing months around an eco­nomic agenda, be­cause they are go­ing to need votes from across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum to win the 24 seats needed to re­gain the House ma­jor­ity.

They’re go­ing to need votes from peo­ple like Pelosi’s fam­ily who sup­port the party’s po­si­tion on boost­ing mid­dle-class in­come but op­pose its stance on abor­tion rights.

“They’re there to fight for peo­ple’s rights, work­ing fam­i­lies,” Pelosi said of her loyal Demo­cratic fam­ily mem­bers. “What are we talk­ing about here? In our cau­cus, one thing uni­fies us: our val­ues, about work­ing fam­i­lies.”

OLIVER CONTRERAS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) talks to Washington Post re­porters Tues­day in her of­fice on Capi­tol Hill. Pelosi came un­der fire for com­ments re­gard­ing abor­tion dur­ing the in­ter­view.

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