Roll Call: Suddenly Democrats are looking to pivot from impeachment

Well, some Democrats, anyway. With the first year of a Democratic House majority slipping away and little to show for it except grandstanding by Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff, their leadership has become desperate to change the subject back to legislating. The release today of a pharmaceutical pricing reform bill — a shared priority of Donald Trump’s, no less — provides Democrats with a narrative changer, Roll Call reports.

Assuming they want it, of course:

House Democratic leaders’ plan to release a top-priority prescription drug pricing bill on Thursday presents the caucus with an opportunity to refocus its messaging on legislating over investigating — one that many Democrats say is desperately needed.

Moderate Democrats in particular are concerned that the caucus’s policy work isn’t breaking through the impeachment cloud that has overshadowed the 116th Congress.

What policy work? They haven’t passed anything major at all that has a chance of being passed in the Senate. Nancy Pelosi did get HR1 passed, the Democratic cri de coeur on election security that would have all but nationalized elections. Mitch McConnell repeatedly warned that it would be a dead letter in the Senate. Otherwise, the first nine months of the year have been the Nadler-Schiff Show, complete with its Two-Part Mueller Flop episode.

The members whose midterm wins gave Pelosi the gavel are getting sick and tired of investigations taking priority over legislation. That follows some data that John noted on Monday, showing a large disconnect between their voters’ priorities and what they perceived as House Dems’ priorities:

“Moderate members desperately would like to tell the story of what’s actually going right in the United States Congress. I think people would be very interested in that message,” said Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, who heads the political arm of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. “Despite the speaker trying to get it out, it doesn’t seem to be getting out.”

To Schrader’s point, an internal Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee polling memo leaked to Politico showed that a majority of voters surveyed in the national mid-August poll perceived Democrats’ top priority to be investigating Trump. More respondents said their personal priorities were health care and immigration than respondents who perceived those issues as priorities for Democrats.

That is the gravest danger for Democrats in the upcoming election, and practically a replay of the trap Republicans set for themselves in 1998. Democrats need to hold these seats in 2020 not just to retain their House majority, but also to compete against Trump for an Electoral College win. As I write in my column at The Week, the situation has changed a lot in the suburbs since the midterms, and Democrats haven’t:

In 2018, the special counsel investigation into “Russiagate” was still very much in play. Democrats pressed hard on the potential necessity to remove Trump because of an illegitimate election in 2016. That fueled turnout among Democrats while potentially depressing the Republican vote. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report ended the Russiagate narrative, which means that voters won’t be responding to a legitimacy argument in the next election.

On top of that, continuing efforts by Democrats to impeach Trump might well backfire by enraging the same voters who sat out in the midterms. While popular among progressive activists, polling on impeachment among all voters has always been poor and is now declining even further. Democrats are now issuing double-talk statements on impeachment while holding hearings to demand that marginal figures like former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski read aloud from the Mueller report. The more they talk about impeachment, the less voters — perhaps especially suburban voters — will feel Democrats are focused on them.

Immigration might be an area where both Trump and Democrats could kill their own hopes. That’s another area where the ground has changed but Democrats have not kept up:

Trump made a strategic error in filling his midterm messaging with dire tales of “invasions,” which clearly turned off swing voters. One year later, however, the border situation has settled down, thanks in large part to Trump’s maneuvering with Mexico and a fight to change asylum rules at the border. If he can maintain both of those policies, Trump and the GOP can replace the scare stories with claims of progress. If, on the other hand, Trump returns to his hysterical rhetoric about invading hordes, or if border security breaks down, those suburban voters might stay on the other side of the aisle in disgust.

In contrast, Democrats have insisted on swinging further to the left on immigration. So many of their presidential contenders have spoken about decriminalizing border crossings that former Obama-era attorney general Eric Holder had to rebuke them publicly, telling CNN’s David Axelrod: “Borders mean something.”

Open borders might sell well in Democrats’ progressive power base of urban cores, and perhaps even a little in agriculture-heavy areas where cheap labor means better bottom lines. But it won’t sell in the suburbs.

There’s a lot more that goes into calculations for electoral success in 2020, such as candidate quality and organization, but the latter isn’t a beacon of hope for Democrats either. If Democrats want to compete in 2020, they first have to recognize that it’s not 2018 any longer. Trump-hatred won’t push them across the finish line on its own. If they don’t start accomplishing something with their majority, voters will ask themselves why they gave it to Pelosi in the first place.

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