Opinion: Not So Fast, Democrats. You Had a Good Day, but Now What?

Party needs to focus on a clear message

Democratic leaders such as Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi may be celebrating the GOP’s recent health care debacle, but they need to focus on making sure that Americans know what they stand for, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democratic leaders such as Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi may be celebrating the GOP’s recent health care debacle, but they need to focus on making sure that Americans know what they stand for, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 30, 2017 at 5:04am

As the Republican Party has learned, it’s much easier to be the party of “no” than to actually have a plan to lead. So while Democrats are celebrating a GOP in disarray, the party out of power needs a message and a plan.

Understandably, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosicelebrated as the GOP’s new-and-improved health care plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act failed. But long term, she must truly want to experience a return to the speaker’s post. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer knows just how to rile Donald Trump, his fellow New Yorker. But he still has to call Trump Mr. President.

So what happens the morning after the party, when all that remains are empty champagne bottles and a headache?

While the health care disaster did not help the Republicans’ reputation and exposed splits within the party, it did not magically gain Democrats seats in the Senate or House or change the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and various resorts branded with a certain larger-than-life name.

The Democratic Party lost a presidential race they expected to win because of a muddled message and party divisions of their own, even if Russia helped. One victory is not going to change that sobering fact or stop Trump and a Republican Party united behind him from reversing the legacy of President Barack Obama, this week on energy regulations.

Democrats only need remember how aimless, crushed and downright depressed they appeared after November’s election. Then, day-after-inauguration marches in January filled streets around the country and the world, and resurgent activists at street protests and citizens at town hall meetings shook party leaders out of the doldrums and gave them direction.

Stepping up

Even then, it seemed, the push came from the outside. Now, those citizens look to the party for leadership.

To be able to climb their way out of the electoral wilderness, Democrats have to be as strategic as Republicans, who proved to be very effective at the hard work, 50-state organizing and brass knuckle politics that have given them overwhelming control of the majority of governorships and state legislatures, and a Supreme Court seat that once looked to be the Democrats to choose.

On that front, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, without apparent irony, could tout obstruction as genius when he froze out President Obama’s pick Merrick Garland, yet chide Democrats for holding up “good man” Neil Gorsuch.

Democrats have to build up a depleted bench and a roster of electable candidates to challenge Republicans who may be weakened but still have the advantage of running in districts shaped to give them an advantage. In many of them, Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate the last time around. The party needs others to step up — as Jon Ossoff has in a surprisingly close Georgia race to replace Tom Price — to contest in races where it has a chance, and in others just to prove it cares enough to show up.

It’s not as though the Republicans are going to disappear. Despite a Twitter-addicted leader, expect them to continue to enact a conservative agenda — in fact, they still haven’t given up on health care. There are philosophical differences, as the health care fight showed, between hard-line conservatives, center-right members in states such as Pennsylvania, and the president who struck a populist note during the campaign. But Republican Party members have proved they have discipline. Democrats can’t depend on Trumpian shenanigans and Republican confusion to last forever.

Strategies and challenges

So, for Democrats, what’s the plan? If they work with Trump on anything, they have to tread carefully, and not alienate an unpredictable, volatile base that wants just the opposite. Trump himself has so poisoned the well with accusations against popular former President Obama and dismissive and rude behavior with a long list of perceived enemies, that saying “no” works for a little while. But Democrats proved to be just as divided as the GOP, in last year’s primaries and beyond. The team of Tom Perez and Keith Ellison at the Democratic National Committee has calmed the waters; Perez has asked for committee staffers’ resignations by April 15, no doubt in hopes of starting fresh.

Will Democrats cooperate with GOP colleagues in the House and Senate on issues such as infrastructure and tax reform? Both parties have to first start talking to each other, a feat that seems more probable in the Senate. There is a fine line between cooperation, compromise and capitulation, and both parties, more apart than ever, will need skills to walk it.

Democrats could always mirror the intransigent GOP strategy of the recent past, and see how that works out in 2018 midterm elections. Waiting for a GOP implosion could be as futile as waiting for 2016 voters to realize that Trump was unacceptable or waiting for demographic change to win out.

Of course, the biggest challenge for Democrats might be how to focus on one clear message. With so many potential scandals to chase and moves to be outraged by, nothing might stick or hold the public’s attention for more than a minute, whether it’s potential links between Russia and members of the Trump campaign, conflict of interest involving Trump-owned businesses or the GOP’s relative silence on much of it.

By one important measure, the Trump administration has been quite successful. Good news or bad, it dominates every cycle. Trump is the ultimate reality showman, and as entertainment goes, he and his allies are hard to beat. It might take a while, especially among his solid supporters, for the glitter to wear off, though recent polls suggest that might slowly be happening.

For Democrats, keeping it simple could be the best strategy — convincingly telling the American people what they stand for and making their own case for how to make America work for everyone. Easy, right?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.