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Opinion: Beware the Dog Days of August

A critical month to figure out which party has the initiative into the fall

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his Capitol office after the Republican Senate policy lunch that took place at the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to his Capitol office after the Republican Senate policy lunch that took place at the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Nothing happens in August, right? At least that’s always the usual explanation for the mass exodus that leaves Washington nearly uninhabited for much of D.C.’s dog days.

But actually, throughout history, August has been a month of big events, especially in the realm of politics and war. The Brits burned Washington, and World War I started with the “Guns of August.” Women got the right to vote. Social Security became law, and we dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

East Germany put up the Berlin Wall in August. Dr. King led the March on Washington, and Woodstock rocked the world.

Cindy Sheehan camped on George Bush’s Texas doorstep for a month, and Katrina smashed the Big Easy overnight.

In August 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic Party presidential nomination. It was August a year later that tea partiers were taking over town halls.

President Obama announced the end of combat operations in Iraq in August. Four years later August saw ISIS sweep across Iraq and Ferguson go up in flames.

We’ve seen presidential debates in August, North Korea launch ballistic missiles and neo-Nazis disgrace the streets of Charlottesville.

A lot has happened in August. And given the state of the world and Washington, there’s no reason to think the last month of summer this year will escape without an event — good or bad — that could impact the midterms this fall.

Schooling the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement last week cancelling the traditional August recess because of Democratic obstruction may be one of those events. McConnell’s decision is a controversial one, especially for the inside-the-Beltway crowd banking on a week or two away from what has been a wild political season by any standards. Watch: McConnell Cancels Recess, Schumer Says Democrats “Welcome” Extended Schedule

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The late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith once argued for a two-month recess — August and September — saying it would help alleviate “confused thinking, harmful emotions, destructive tempers, unsound and unwise legislation, and ill health.”

One wonders what she would think about the state of partisan affairs in the Capitol these days. Probably not much.

But with all due respect for Smith, McConnell is right to keep the Senate in D.C. despite the election year and the likelihood that humid and heated conditions will test the mettle of both parties and their leaders. There is much to be done legislatively, and given Senate rules and the Democrats’ enthusiasm for parliamentary delay to all but shut down Senate business, time has become a precious commodity in the 115th Congress.

Nobody understands that better than the two party leaders in the U.S. Senate.

One thing that is important to understand about Mitch McConnell is that he is, first and foremost, a man of the Senate. A tough politician, absolutely, but just as definitively, a man who believes in the institution of the Senate and its role in serving the nation.

He believes the Senate should do its job, plain and simple, and one of its responsibilities is confirming executive branch nominations. If that means tossing the August recess to get it done, so be it.

For more than 18 months, Democrats have stalled nominations to keep the executive branch from implementing policies they don’t like. According to The Washington Post, the average confirmation time for Trump nominees is 87 days, compared to 67 days for Obama nominees, 44 days for George W. Bush nominees, and 54 days for Clinton nominees. When you can’t win an election outright, keeping the mostly Democratic federal workforce in charge is the next best thing.

‘Partisan mischief’

But Schumer, apparently, sees an added month on the legislative calendar as just another opportunity for partisan mischief, this time by focusing on health care as a lead-up to the midterms. It’s a strategy designed to get Washington talking about anything but the improving economy, still the No. 1 issue.

Health care may be the only top-tier issue Democrats can agree on, and their argument is simple: Republicans are to blame for the cost of health care in America. Not the Affordable Care Act. Not Obamacare’s fundamentally flawed strategy of trying to control demand while adding 20 million new people to the health care system. And certainly not themselves, the Democrats, who voted for a plan that depends on government’s ability to limit people’s use of health care through taxing high quality benefit plans, or the so-called “Cadillac plans,” or by taxing health care innovation through the medical device tax.

Health care needs fixing. That’s not debatable. Republicans need to step up to the plate with their own plan to bring down costs and improve the health care system. But it’s clear that Chuck Schumer will stop in the Senate any health care reform that doesn’t continue to support the ACA and its flawed structure.

The real strategic test for August will be whether Democrats can shift the focus off the economy and back onto health care. The most recent survey for Winning the Issues showed Democrats leading Republicans on handling health care (49 percent to 33 percent), while the GOP is stronger on the economy (47 percent to 38 percent) and jobs (45 percent to 38 percent). 

With those stark differences in issue handling, it is no wonder that Democrats want to talk health care, not tax cuts. But if Republicans can keep the focus on the economy, the discussion will be on an issue that is a strength for them.

August will be a critical month in determining who has the initiative going into the fall. The challenge for Republicans will be to make the economy and jobs the No. 1 issue.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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