As Washington readies for divided government, the left is adjusting its expectations for the new Congress.
Liberal activists are eager to see the House Democratic majority embrace their key priorities — including a step in the direction of single-payer health care — but they’re also keenly aware that Senate Republicans have a bigger majority in 2019 and that President Donald Trump still wields his veto pen.
That leaves key groups like Indivisible, MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee walking a fine line ahead of the new Congress: pushing Democrats where they can, but not going so hard and fast that it hurts their relationships with party leaders and their long-term goals. Over-promising to the Democratic base could also leave voters frustrated as lofty progressive goals meet traditional Washington gridlock.
Of course, the left has never operated as a monolith, and activists may yet change their approach. But for now, top groups that can drive the liberal grassroots are largely signaling that, instead of pressuring Democratic leadership to quickly veer further left, they’re prepared to see the party’s more broadly popular ideas pass the House first.
Perhaps the biggest future flashpoint between Democrats and their liberal base: Medicare for All, which a majority of House Democrats have already endorsed in legislative form. House Democratic leaders aren’t expected to move single-payer health care legislation soon, but PCCC’s Adam Green isn’t objecting yet. He did, however, emphasize the importance of a House vote on an option to buy into Medicare.
“Medicare for All, single payer, is the ceiling that a sizable number believe in, but not everyone is there yet,” Green said in an interview, describing a Medicare option as a “floor” for the party’s health care debate. “At a minimum we should be projecting that very strong floor to voters, not small-bore, technocratic tweaks to [Obamacare].”
Green wasn’t alone in acknowledging that ambitious progressive goals like Medicare for All have yet to get broad buy-in from Democrats.
Indivisible, the liberal network that gave the party’s candidates valuable grassroots support during the midterms, released a revamped edition of its popular guide for citizen-activists on Tuesday night that embraces a sense of pragmatism.
Indivisible proposes a two-part “legislative offense” strategy to nudge the party forward: passing “messaging bills” that spell out a compelling progressive agenda even if they won’t be signed into law, and leveraging “must-pass bills” to extract occasional wins from GOP senators.
“We can safely assume that the vast majority of good legislation passed in the House will die in the Republican-controlled Senate,” the former House Democratic aides who founded Indivisible write in their new guide. “Plus, we would still need Donald Trump to sign any bill that clears Congress in order for it to become law.”
Anti-Trump groups also appear willing to give the new House Democratic majority some space on the legislative front because they know their allies on Capitol Hill can hobble the White House through a litany of investigations. More than a half-dozen prospective committee chairmen are sitting members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, its leaders noted at a Monday press conference.
“There are two big prongs Democrats can pursue: One is resolute oversight and accountability of this administration to uncover lawless behavior and hold officials to account for abusing the public’s trust,” MoveOn.org’s Washington director, Ben Wikler, said in an interview. “The second is passing unapologetically progressive measures that show the public what Democrats would do if they actually had power, particularly on issues like drug prices or minimum wage or infrastructure.”
Notably, Wikler didn’t mention: single-payer health care. Many prominent Democrats have endorsed Medicare for All, including multiple potential 2020 presidential hopefuls, but the party’s candidates didn’t necessarily embrace the issue in swing districts that proved critical to its new House majority. And Republicans are already working to turn the costly plan into a weapon against Democrats ahead of the 2020 campaign.
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, noted in an interview that “who supported [Obamacare] and who opposed it was a resonant issue” in many battleground races, rather than Medicare for All.
“A lot of what people were voting for a was a check on Donald Trump,” Tanden added.
To that end, an entire section of the new Indivisible guide is devoted to deterring Democrats from the “dangerous” appetite to cut deals with Trump and the GOP.
“What we can make of those opportunities will depend on our Democratic colleagues,” McConnell wrote. “Will they choose to go it alone and simply make political points? Or will they choose to work together and actually make a difference?”
Working with the GOP will be necessary if Democrats hope to get Trump’s signature on an infrastructure package or prescription drugs legislation — two items often discussed as potential areas of agreement between the president and the new House majority next year. But progressive activists, even if they’re not making big demands of leadership to tack left, are warning Democrats that reaching across the aisle isn’t the best way to make their case to voters ahead of 2020.
“We’re asking the American public to give us power. It’s more about projecting what we would do with it than expecting that we would do something with Donald Trump and Senate Republicans,” said PCCC’s Green.
And even as some high-profile liberal groups aren’t issuing a list of demands, others on the left are putting Democrats on notice that they’ll want quick movement next year.
“We think we should be reminding them of what progressives expect and pushing leadership to make room for folks who came in on that to lead on those issues,” Heidi Hess, co-director of the left-leaning advocacy group CREDO Action, said in an interview. “So, yes, we’re going to push, not just on Medicare for All, but across the board.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine