Because Democrats Need a Refresher Course on How to Be Effective

Opposition party must offer a clear choice—not a muddled message

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) approaches the podium for a news briefing after the Senate Democratic weekly luncheon January 10, 2017 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

When I was a Congressional staffer for a Democratic House member in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, a colleague said something that has stuck with me for the last decade and a half: “The Democrats have not learned how to be a minority party.”

At the time, my reaction was something along the lines of “Good, I hope we never do.” After four decades of controlling the House without interruption, Democrats at that point had only been in the minority for seven or eight years, and the margin was close enough to entertain notions of winning back the chamber in the next midterm election. I saw my colleague’s observation as an expression of surrender, an unacceptable resignation to defeat before the next battle had even been fought.

Only in recent weeks did I—and perhaps Congressional Democrats as well—fully understand what my colleague meant. Learning how to be effective in the minority is not an acceptance of defeat, but rather the first step toward regaining the majority. And Democrats, by refusing to work with Republicans on their deeply flawed health insurance proposal, demonstrated that they are finally learning that lesson.

The president, after his fractured House caucus was unable to even bring his signature healthcare bill to the floor for a vote, blamed the embarrassing loss on the Democrats’ refusal to provide any support to the effort. “Not a single vote!” he complained.

One can be forgiven for rolling one’s eyes at this unseemly whine after eight years of unflinching, united Republican opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda. And even putting aside the political payback angle, it also shouldn’t have been impossible to anticipate Democratic refusal to lend any support to an effort to dismantle the health insurance plan they and their ideological forebears fought for 60 years to get.

But I suppose one also can forgive the Republicans for their surprise that the Democrats finally figured out that playing along in the hopes of being thrown an occasional bone was ineffective. By refusing, as Napoleon once advised, to bail out their opponents when those foes were in the process of defeating themselves, Democrats demonstrated political acumen, unity and backbone that they often lacked during the George W. Bush administration, when they repeatedly allowed themselves to get played, bullied and rolled by the GOP.

I remember how, in those days, Democrats argued among themselves about whether to oppose each new piece of Republican legislation, or to work with Republicans in the hopes of improving an end result that they ultimately didn’t have enough votes to block. There were always enough Democrats willing to roll over, and in the end, the Republicans got virtually everything they wanted—until Bush went too far and suggested a partial privatization of Social Security, a pill that not even every Republican was willing to swallow. A key example was Democratic cooperation with Republicans on the “No Child Left Behind” Act, which some educators saw as a means of discrediting public schools by setting standards that were ultimately impossible to meet. Too often, the few concessions the Democrats received in return for cooperating were negligible, and the gambit was also a political loser for Team Blue: the party never got any credit from Republicans or independents for their cooperation, and their base was unhappy with the concessions.

But by remaining united, the Democrats put the onus of passing this legislation entirely on the Republicans, whose warring factions were not able to unite behind a mutually acceptable solution. The far-right “Freedom Caucus” felt that leaving any part of “Obamacare” in place was unacceptable, and the rest of the Republican caucus, beset by angry constituents at town halls, feared a midterm backlash against making any further cuts. In the end, the Republican leadership could not cobble together a plan that would produce a majority vote. By letting the Republicans fail, rather than trying to cut a deal, Democrats allowed their opponents to deal themselves a massive and embarrassing defeat. (They also kept Obamacare in place, at least for now. Who would have expected that result?)

Democrats have long prided themselves on being the party that makes government work, and there is often an inherent discomfort on the left with the notion of gumming up the works. Many Democrats view this as a tactic more befitting a party that regards government not as a problem solver but as the problem itself. But blocking legislation is better than cooperating to win minor concessions to a bad bill.

As one of the 20th century’s most noted Republicans, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, reportedly said, “The duty of the opposition party is to oppose.” If the Democratic Party wants to return to the majority sooner rather than later, it needs to continue embracing its inner obstructionist and place itself squarely in opposition to Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the entire Republican agenda. Democrats must offer a clear choice, not a muddled message. This is the way to distinguish themselves and to unify and motivate their base, which is no less divided than the quarreling Republicans.

Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com.