A change of the guard in the House of Representatives ending one-party control of Washington. A check on a new president’s agenda. Outsider candidates swept into office on pledges to hold the White House accountable.
These depictions apply equally to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new Democratic House majority in 2019 as they did to the outgoing Republican majority who assumed power in 2011. As the GOP insurgents who wrested the speaker’s gavel from Pelosi eight years ago adjust to life in the minority, one silver lining is that history could well repeat. The dreams of hard-earned majorities can be fleeting and fizzle into the nightmare of being back in the minority, especially when grounded on untenable promises.
For President Trump, divided government creates headaches and opportunities. House Democrats have the ability to investigate, impede and impeach. The firebrand progressives that run today’s Democrats will demand all three in spades – all of which will make life painful for the White House. Control of the congressional oversight committees gives the anti-Trump forces the enforcement mechanism they have lacked. Trump’s conservative agenda will be a non-starter for Pelosi leftists more interested in filing subpoenas than legislation.
But on the plus side for the president, he now has a high-profile foil to position himself against, and an unpopular one at that. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal last fall showed Pelosi with the highest disapproval rating of any political figure in their survey, with a full 48 percent of voters seeing her negatively. It’s a mistake for Democrats to assume their victories amid a barrage of anti-Pelosi advertising means voters view her in a positive light. They definitely don’t, and Pelosi owes the speaker’s gavel to Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs, not an embrace of her or her policies.
House Democrats are about to find out that governing is harder than campaigning. Their majority is paved through 31 districts won by Trump in 2016 that flipped blue in 2018, many of which had resided in the GOP column for generations. These red districts are not fertile political ground for the deep blue policies pushed by progressives. Furthermore, many of these new members of Congress explicitly pledged to oppose Pelosi in order convinces voters of their electability – pledges that are about to be put to the test.
Already, the intra-party Democratic fault lines are evident. Hours before taking the gavel, Pelosi made headlines in her first sit-down television interview by leaving impeachment of Trump on the table. She also broke from long-standing Justice Department precedent by musing about indicting a sitting president. Both statements were unmistakable nods to the left-wing base whose support she needs, but words that should send shivers down the spines of Democrats now representing voters who supported Trump over Hillary Clinton.
In her opening remarks, Pelosi referred to climate change as “the existential threat of our time,” overlooking global terrorism or ISIS. It was an attempt to placate incoming New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose so-called “Green New Deal” would end the energy industry as we know it – as well as the hundreds of thousands of jobs it provides. After dispatching one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants in a primary last June, the 29-year old Ocasio-Cortez owes the 78-year-old speaker nothing, and she is already blasting one of Pelosi’s budget proposals as a “dark political maneuver designed to hamstring progress.”
Divided government can be messy for the party in charge of the House when campaign pledges morph into broken promises. Just ask former Speakers John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who spent the last eight years balancing the responsibilities of governing with the grassroots’ desire to repeal ObamaCare and reign in government spending.
In these unpredictable times, the new Democratic majority’s hold on power could be just as tenuous. Their liberal base is fueled by anger, not compromise, but Republicans still run the other two branches of government. Plus, they will be running the House underneath the shadow of their party’s presidential primary, which has already started and will push the entire national conversation even further leftward. Voters could usher Nancy Pelosi and her majority to the exit doors if they mistake a midterm referendum for a governing mandate.