There are 195 Democrats in the U.S. House right now. The emerging wisdom of the political class is that there will be more of them next year, probably a majority actually. Democrats need 23 seats to get to the 218 they need, and most people now think they will get there. The presumption is that this is good for them. I’m not absolutely sure of that, yet.
I am imaging a 2018 Election right now where Democrats do incredibly well. In 2006, they won 30 seats in the anti-Bush wave, and I think that’s a fair neighborhood to predict them ending up in again. A win of that magnitude would give Democrats a 225-210 Majority. While Democrats may pick up the U.S. Senate as well, no one is going to win the Senate comfortably. Whether Democrats pick up control with two seats, or lose a seat or two, the Senate will be divided 53-47 or closer, either way.
This narrowly divided Congress will be very difficult to navigate. I’m not as concerned about the fight over Nancy Pelosi being Speaker or not, in part because I think it will be a real struggle for whoever gets the gavel. A majority with 225 members can’t afford to lose more than seven votes on any particular vote, or they lose. There will probably be seven or more members representing extremely competitive seats, members who will fear tough votes. There will almost certainly be seven or more Democrats on the other end of the spectrum, seven Alexandria Ocasio Cortez type members who will be in an energized, militant left. They’ll have demands too.
This kind of divided House will produce a Democratic version of the Boehner or Ryan speakerships- a caucus on the left like the Tea Party, who make demands of their leadership. What may they demand? I’m sure they’d get a vote on a clean DACA bill, and other mainstream Democratic initiatives. I’m sure they’d also get a vote of a Bernie Sanders style single-payer health care bill, one that would be dead on arrival in the Senate, but would serve both parties goal of energizing their base. This is probably the tip of the iceberg though. There would probably be a demand for a vote on abolishing ICE, among other less mainstream initiatives of the further left-wing of America. Obviously, I’ve left out the big issue settling over all of this as well- a potential vote on impeachment. Sure, there’s virtually a zero chance of getting enough Republicans (probably between 14 and 20) in the Senate to vote to convict and remove Donald Trump from office. The truth is, almost everything in the Democratic platform, besides maybe a minimum wage increase or infrastructure bill, would either die in the Senate or on Trump’s desk, so all of this is about political theatre, not actual governing. It’s all really a question of what face the Democrats want to put on ahead of a 2020 Election.
All of this is a great reason to make Nancy Pelosi the next Speaker, since she skillfully used the gavel in 2007 and 2008 to position the Democratic Party for a 2008 sweep to power. This isn’t 2007 though, and Pelosi is far less popular than she was then. Some of the Democrats running this year are running on a far less compromising agenda than the more moderate 2006 class. I’m not sure even Pelosi will be able to hold the left flank in line, and I’m not sure the members in more moderate districts will be able to not cave in to the left flank. If those in more competitive districts kill off the agenda of the further left, the Democratic base may revolt. They could face competitive primaries that virtually insure their defeat in 2020, one way or the other. Or they could go along with the left, and insure their defeat that way. Democrats could look conflicted and inept, or militantly ideological. Neither work very well.
It’s very hard to run the House with a small majority when you don’t have the White House or ability to govern. It’s really hard to do when you have a very motivated, agitated base. You end up spending most of your time posturing for the optics, balancing the base against the broader electorate. Doing that during the 2020 Presidential race may be impossible.
So, what does all of this have to do with the title of this piece, and President Trump? Well, it gives him a contrast. It makes the Democrats relevant again, and allows him to position them as only trying to destroy him and his Presidency. He can point to their infighting and call it inept, or to their more progressive successes and call it extreme, or to their efforts to hold his feet to the fire and play the victim. It gives him a way out.
I know where those on the left would go in responding to me here- they obstructed us from Congress in the Obama era, and it turned out fine for them. That’s true, but that’s the difference in the two parties voters. Republicans rally together when attacked, and play the victim quite well. They are most united in their hate of the Democratic base. Democratic voters want to govern and achieve things, and are largely turned off by the fighting. We just can’t do what they can.
Democrats need to win Congress in 2018- both houses. They need to maximize their victories, and try to get to 240 House seats. Once in power, our new Congress members need to rally to our leaders and stand together in the fight. If we are a chaotic mess, we will be handing Donald Trump a pathway to victory.