As Democrats regain power, will parties find a bridge on issues?
Alice Blackmer is a transplanted Vermonter, a huge Bernie Sanders fan repotted in the northern Virginia exurb of Leesburg, an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. On Election Day, she voted a straight Democratic ticket, and helped Democrats flip a seat to retake the House.
“I almost don’t care who’s on the ballot,” she said, emerging from her polling place in a drizzle. “I just can’t stand Donald Trump and those around him.” What she wanted was a check on the president.
She got her wish.
Tuesday’s record-turnout midterm elections brought divided government back to Washington – a condition that Americans prefer more often than not, and one that, while unwieldy, offers the checks and balances that the Constitution enshrines. This week’s balloting also reinforced polarized America, solidifying the political fault lines of 2016: Generally, states that Mr. Trump handily carried two years ago are sending Republicans to the Senate, while women in suburbs that went for Hillary Clinton have handed the House to Democrats.
“The polarization, the trench warfare of American politics looks to be intensified, not reduced, after Tuesday,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.
This doesn’t close the door on bipartisanship. Indeed, divided government has a way of opening that door a bit wider simply because the two parties have to work together if they want to get anything done. Since the election, all three key players – President Trump, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell – have mentioned the “B” word, bipartisanship.
“We will strive for bipartisanship,” Representative Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday. “We believe we have a responsibility to seek common ground where we can. Where we cannot, we will stand our ground.”
Potential exists for deals on issues such as infrastructure and reducing the cost of health care. The question is, will these leaders go there? Will their bases allow them to?
The new ingredient in the Washington equation is a Democratic House, likely led by Pelosi, who is running for speaker. If her colleagues back her – and many ran their campaigns on the promise not to – it would be the second time she wields the gavel, making her the most powerful woman in Washington.
“I’ve watched Nancy Pelosi’s career from the time she got there. She is a coalition builder. She wants to get things done. She’s not the ideologue caricature that has been put into the press by her opponents,” says Ray Smock, former House historian.
Pelosi points to her work with President George W. Bush on a major energy bill, even as she vigorously opposed him on the war in Iraq.
Pragmatists outnumber progressives
Much has been made of a looming Democratic schism – the divide between the Bernie Sanders progressive wing and the Hillary Clinton establishment wing – and the problems that this could cause for the party. There was the primary victory of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, who is now headed to the House, and the avowed opposition to Pelosi as speaker from candidates trying to wrest control from Republicans in swing districts.
But observers both inside and outside the party say the divide is not nearly as severe as that which plagued Republicans when the tea party rode in on a wave in 2010. Subsequent clashes over spending, health care, and immigration precipitated near fiscal crises and partial government shut-downs, eventually forcing GOP leaders from office.
Indeed, the number of new members who hail from the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party is small. Most new House Democrats are more centrist pragmatists from swing districts who ran on working with Republicans.
“I don’t think that the battles, such as they are within the Democratic family, are about strident ideological platforms,” says Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia. “It’s about new faces. It’s about new blood. It’s about allowing some new ideas to flourish.”
One of the Democrats who worked to elect new leaders to the House was Rep. Seth Moulton (D) of Massachusetts, an Iraq war veteran who has called for Pelosi to step aside. In a statement to the Monitor Wednesday, he said, “the press likes to play up our debates, but we all want to move this country forward.” Democrats are united, he said, on good jobs, affordable health care, and equal rights.
He and other Democrats also point to the constitutional role of Congress as a check and balance on the presidency. The election of a Democratic House blocks any GOP legislative attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act or to weaken popular entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. And it likely means investigative hearings on things like immigration, Russian meddling in elections, changes to health-care policy via executive order, and the president’s business holdings and tax returns. Various federal agencies and cabinet members could become targets, and the administration could face subpoenas.
“We as Democrats are here to strengthen the institution we serve and not to have it be a rubber stamp on President Trump,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday.
The danger of ‘overplaying’ their hand
But Democrats need to be careful not to “overplay” their hand, particularly with impeachment, says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University in Washington. Exit polls showed that three-quarters of Democrats favor impeaching Trump – but only 41 percent of voters overall want him impeached.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are resisting impeachment. “They know that can backfire and help Trump, as it did with President Clinton,” says Mr. Thurber. But will Pelosi and her peers be able to resist the enormous pressure that will come from their base? As she has said, much will depend on the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller.
That investigation saw the ground shift from underneath it when Trump on Wednesday forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appointing his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general – and as Mr. Mueller’s new boss.
Congressional Democrats were alarmed by the move. Pelosi warned in a tweet that “It is impossible to read Attorney General Sessions’ firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine & end Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.” And she said Mr. Whitaker “should recuse himself from any involvement in Mueller’s investigations,” given his “threats” to weaken the probe.
In a tumultuous news conference with the media on Wednesday, Trump also warned that there are “a lot of great things” that he could do with Democrats, but not if they crank up the investigation machine.
In the Senate, Republicans held control while ousting moderate Democrats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri – even as they lost their Republican incumbent in Nevada. The hollowing out of the center continues, with Trump loyalists – including incoming Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee – expected to widen the ideological divide in the chamber.
With divided government, said Senator McConnell on Wednesday, “the message is: ‘figure out what you can do together, and do it.’” He pointed specifically to health care as something that still needed to be fixed.
That said, he emphasized that his top priority would continue to be filling the judiciary with judges like those that Trump has nominated. He added that he would have more time for executive confirmations – such as at the Justice Department – because areas for legislative agreement “will be limited.”
That’s the way Mr. Farnsworth sees it. “Divided government isn’t going to do all that much with respect to policy. The main thing that Democrats can do, and they can do it without Republican votes, is investigate.”
And get ready for 2020. Which both sides are already doing.
Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.