Are Democrats Facing Their Own Tea Party-Style Reckoning?

A wave election in midterms leading to a new House majority, won with victories by moderates in swing districts. A few freshman members in some of the safest seats in the country pursuing an ideologically “pure” agenda that riles up the party’s base but could endanger the moderates who were essential to winning the majority.

It’s all so familiar. And I would know.

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In 1994, I was part of a Republican wave that retook the House for the first time in four decades. I represented Northern Virginia, where many voters are centrists and expect their representatives not to be beholden to the extremes in either party. And over my seven terms—including a stint leading the National Republican Campaign Committee for two election cycles—I saw my conservative credentials questioned and denied by some on the ideological right. It was a prelude of things to come.

After I left the House in 2008, I watched as the Tea Party wave crested in 2010, the House Freedom Caucus formed, and a new GOP House majority succumbed to infighting where members from the most safely deep-red Republican seats set the terms of the debate, held legislation hostage and endangered the reelection of moderates and more pragmatic members.

I witnessed the transformation of my party into one increasingly challenging for centrists. And now, I’m seeing the same thing happening to the Democrats.

Just as her Republican predecessors had to manage the Freedom Caucus’ demands for legislation that would endanger more vulnerable Republicans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has to govern around the left’s highly energized and emergent “Herbal Tea Party” segment. That wing, led by vocal freshmen, is rooted in solidly Democratic, highly urbanized areas where incumbents’ only worry is securing their party’s nomination—and to do that, they need to appeal only to the base. Meanwhile, the many freshmen Democrats elected in traditionally red districts—who must hew to the center to have any chance of being reelected in 2020—get painted with the same brush, imperiling the party’s majority.

For Democrats, letting the tail wag the dog is a no-win formula. And already, Republicans are seeing a resurgence of sorts.

In special elections held this year, the GOP has flipped state Senate seats in Connecticut, Kentucky and Minnesota, and a state House seat in Connecticut. This is in stark contrast to the run-up to the 2018 midterms, when the GOP was losing special election after special election in reliably Republican districts.

If Pelosi wants to turn things around before it’s too late and prevent the Democratic Party from melting down, she needs to learn from what Republicans did—and didn’t do—over the past decade in responding to their own insurgents from within.

Lesson 1: Don’t mistake your party’s opposition to the president for unity.

Pelosi has room to maneuver that her Republican predecessor did not have. One significant differentiator is that House Democrats are not saddled with protecting and defending President Donald Trump’s actions. As speaker, Paul Ryan had to walk a tightrope in the first two years of the Trump presidency—trying not to alienate the president, his congressional allies or his supporters in the base, all while making progress on the House GOP’s own longtime legislative priorities, which didn’t always overlap with those of the administration.

Now, Democrats and their voters are united in opposition to Trump. Still, House Democrats need to cobble together majorities to pass appropriations bills and raise the debt ceiling and would be well advised not to overdramatize these issues, as Republicans did. But on other issues, they are free to maneuver and to assess blame on the president or the Senate Republicans for public policy failures.

That said, simply opposing a president from the opposition party doesn’t, in itself, mean your party is going to stick together. You can unite the opposition enough to paper over intraparty differences some of the time, but eventually those differences will come to the fore.

Here’s why: Members from safe districts will be more likely to want endless theatrical investigations—sometimes of dubious merit—that can detract from the proactive message the party would prefer to send. Members from moderate or swing seats benefit from pursuing the policies and messages that resonate strongest in voters’ lives. A constant focus on stymying the president detracts from that goal.

Fissures will develop. The activist base will get angry at the moderates they feel aren’t doing enough to oppose the president. Moderates will be pressured to abandon what made them electable in the first place. And if they don’t, they’ll face expensive, competitive primaries—usually against an ideologically “pure” candidate who can excite the base and potentially win the primary, but cannot hold the seat in the long term.

Lesson 2: Realize that you are unlikely to get the president to sign any major legislation, and figure out how that should shape your message.

In Congress, a leader’s success generally stems from the ability to do two things: move legislation and reelect members. Pelosi has no equal in the first category. However, with no realistic chance of enacting laws without a Trump signature, her ability to do anything besides messaging is limited—which makes it more complicated to do the second category.

Lacking some sort of bipartisan legislative accomplishment to point to, there’s a good chance the party’s message will be aimed at the base instead of swing voters. Just ask some of the Republicans defeated in 2018 how that worked. It will jeopardize the majority.

A similar dynamic was at play after Republicans took the House in 2010. They were not able to pass any major legislation that President Barack Obama was interested in signing into law. Instead, they voted to repeal Obamacare over a dozen times and shut down the government when unable to get their riders on appropriations bills.

Republicans might have been better served finding some common ground with Democrats and exhibiting some talent for governing. The Republican class of 1994 did exactly that in reforming welfare. Finding common ground on an infrastructure bill would be helpful for Democrats in this Congress.

Lesson 3: Do not let the most vitriolic and uncompromising members of your party set the policy agenda.

Under Speakers Boehner and Ryan, Republican leadership bowed to pressure from the most conservative, safe-district members, unsuccessfully attempting to repeal Obamacare—a move popular with the base, but unpopular among the broader electorate—and enacting tax reform which, in eliminating the ability of some taxpayers to deduct state taxes above a certain threshold, turned California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other high-tax states into “killing zones” for Republicans in the 2018 elections, denying the GOP a majority they thought redistricting had ensured.

One lesson to be learned from the Republican failures is that the public airing of intraparty disputes, while helpful in party safe havens, has a damaging effect on the party’s brand in swing districts. Even Republicans who voted “no” on party initiatives were held liable on Election Day for what the rest of the party did. (This was also true for Democrats in the 2010 election; half of all the House Democrats who voted against Obamacare were defeated by Republicans anyway.)

On this front, Pelosi is not likely to get help from the party’s presidential contenders, as the race to win over the activist base emphasizes liberal litmus tests on controversial proposals like “Medicare for All,” the “Green New Deal” and reparations. Individual House members in more conservative districts will (and should) try to separate themselves from these issues. But as voting habits become more parliamentary in nature and less localized (with help from the earmark ban, which has made the localization of House races more difficult, as members have no tangible project to bring home), party branding dominates.

Lesson 4: Do not mistake a wave election in the midterms for momentum in the upcoming presidential race.

As is often the case, parties misread their mandates. Voters elected Democrats in 2018 to put a check on the president and balance government rather than giving President Trump a blank check. But midterms rarely indicate how the next presidential election will turn out.

One has to look no further than 1994 and 2010 to see that those midterms—both tidal waves for Republicans—in no way predicted the outcome of the presidential elections two years later—when Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, respectively.

Democrats over-investigating the administration, or discussing policies outside the mainstream do not help their cause for 2020, in the swing districts that delivered their majority. The midterms were a referendum on Trump. But the 2020 will be different! It will be about the competing visions of the two presidential nominees.

These potential nominees need to woo activist Democratic voters in order to be nominated. Playing to swing voters in the primary season is unlikely. This further complicates Democratic branding efforts among independent voters.

Going into 2018, Republicans ignored the early signs of voter unrest at their peril. They let their tail wag their dog. Now, it’s happening to the Democrats. Two months into the new Congress, the exuberance of her most progressive members is a challenge to Pelosi’s majority. And it will remain so. But if the early returns from recent special elections are to be given credence—and, looking at historic trends, they should—the atmospherics of the 2018 elections are gone.

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