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Democrats Need to Get Ready to Run Washington

An unanticipated wave election could hand them the White House and both chambers of Congress. Are they prepared to govern?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The bottoming-out of Donald Trump’s campaign, and the obvious difficulties he will have rehabilitating it, have made the unthinkable thinkable.

Until this past week, political observers commonly assumed partisan GOP gerrymandering after the 2010 midterm, and the geographic clustering of liberal voters in urban enclaves, had placed the House of Representatives out of Democratic reach until at least 2022.

These structural factors serve as a massive buffer for Republicans who can lose the popular vote in the landslide and still maintain control of the House. In 2012, Democratic House candidates garnered a million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans retained a 234-201 majority. Most election analysts believe Democrats would have to win the overall House vote by seven or eight percent in order to gain a bare majority.

Thanks to Trump, we are closing in on that spread.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told her members last week that if the election were held that day, they would win a majority.

The prospect of total Democratic control of government is a tantalizing one for liberals, who have imagined Clinton’s presidency as a slog of gridlock and obstruction. Like Obama’s presidency, minus the first two years of unified government. Even fleeting Democratic majorities would allow Clinton to craft policy, improve people’s lives, and build a legacy for herself.

The problem is that Democrats are suffering from something like Stockholm Syndrome for political minorities. Unable to fathom majority status, they have devoted little creative imagination to the agenda they’d pass if they were in charge.

“Leader Pelosi is singularly focused on Election Day,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill told Politico Monday, stressing, in Politico’s words, “that there’s no measuring of the drapes or planning for a takeover behind the scenes.”

Republican leaders have been priming members to enact a specific agenda for several years running, making it very clear what they would do with absolute political power. With Democrats it’s much less clear. The potential for tension with the White House is underscored by the fact that their agenda isn’t nearly as fleshed out as Clinton’s presidential platform is. The two camps would be well served by spending the next three weeks expanding their range of common ground. If they don’t, they may end up governing together without a clear vision of how to proceed.

Clinton’s agenda is almost ridiculously detailed, especially in contrast to her opponent. “Trump’s campaign has posted just seven policy proposals on his website, totaling just over 9,000 words,” The Associated Press reported in August. “There are 38 on Clinton’s ‘issues’ page, ranging from efforts to cure Alzheimer’s disease to Wall Street and criminal justice reform, and her campaign boasts that it has now released 65 policy fact sheets, totaling 112,735 words.”

But on this score, House Democrats look more like Trump than Clinton. There are five bullet points on their economic agenda—infrastructure, job training, student debt relief, gender pay equity, and Social Security expansion—four of which they propose to address with draft bills that have varying degrees of support within the Democratic caucus.

That’s a start, but it would behoove Democrats to work with Clinton to expand their agenda, and agree on a set of high-priority items to enact first and quickly, before legislative sclerosis sets in.

At a more general level, Democrats need to be psychologically prepared to use power—endure political risk—to help struggling people in material ways. That’s the single tool they will have to combat the incredible cynicism that this election, and years of economic stagnation, have bred in the public. Infrastructure spending and debt-free college (two programs Clinton has proposed) are good starting points, but it’ll be just as important for Democrats to serve basic maintenance functions, from fixing the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act to enacting stimulus in the event of an economic downturn.

That in turn will likely require Senate Democrats to reform or abolish filibuster rules that allow a minority of members to passively obstruct any piece of legislation—rules that Mitch McConnell weaponized as Senate minority leader during Obama’s first term. Since Democrats are expected to have a thin majority in the Senate, it would make liberal reforms all but impossible to pass. If Republicans use the filibuster to preserve a vacancy on the Supreme Court, Democrats will likely eliminate the filibuster for all nominees, irrespective of what happens in the House. If Democrats retain the House, they will have to do the same thing for regular legislation, too, or their governing majority will be paralyzed.

In August, the outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid—still immensely influential among Democrats—told the New York Times Republicans would either have to relent from abusing the filibuster, or Democrats would take the tool away from them. “Unless after this election there is a dramatic change to go back to the way it used to be, the Senate will have to evolve as it has in the past,” said Reid, referring to a former tradition of rarely mounting filibusters. “But it will evolve with a majority vote determining stuff. It is going to happen.”

It’s natural that Democrats are a bit behind the eight ball. Before Obama’s presidency, Democrats controlled the House and Senate, and used the resources they commanded to build the educational and analytical groundwork for the legislating they would do the following Congress. This helped lay the groundwork for the Affordable Care Act— which still proved to be a Sisyphean challenge—and allowed the House to pass an extensive agenda, including ambitious climate change legislation, within the first few months of the 111th Congress.

Today’s Democrats are at a disadvantage relative to their 2008 counterparts, and if they win the House, their power to act will be confined by the relative thinness of their majority. But there’s no reason they should be caught entirely flatfooted by an unanticipated victory.