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Pelosi's choice: cooperation or confrontation

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrives

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrives for a gathering of the House Democratic Caucus at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 10, 2019. Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

On ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, one of the smartest strategists in the Democratic Party, had this to say of his party’s presidential hopefuls:

“The person that appreciates, understands, and puts themselves most comfortably, based on their own history, where the voters have lived their lives, that’s going to be the candidate that shines over … the long term.”

He then went on to criticize the majority of the Democratic presidential candidates who have been enthusiastically supporting “Medicare for All,” saying, “We’re going to eliminate 150 million people’s health care, and we’re going to provide health care for people that have just come over the border.” Pointing out that Democrats currently enjoy a huge lead on the health care issue, Emanuel said the support for what amounts to the end of private health care as we know it was “reckless.”

It was a perfect “kill the messenger” moment as the progressive Twittersphere — which is driving the Democratic primary process, likely off a cliff — exploded, lobbing the kind of vitriol at President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff usually reserved for President Donald Trump and Republicans.

The harsh reaction to Emanuel and his apparently unsanctioned comments, I suspect, wasn’t lost on Hill Democratic leaders, especially Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But like Emanuel, Pelosi operates in the real world, which makes her challenge this fall as Congress returns ever more difficult.

She’s not alone in that challenge. In truth, both parties are trying to navigate some rough political waters in an anti-Trump media environment that is clearly enthralled by the Democratic presidential candidates’ controversial and radical proposals.

The media’s focus on the left-wing Democratic presidential field, their proposals and positions on everything from Medicare for All to open borders to climate change ought to be a plus for Trump and Republicans. But the challenge for the president and his allies on the Hill in the next couple of months is to get the political narrative back on an economy that is still delivering record employment and wage gains.

This gives Republicans a strategic advantage because, despite the media’s fascination with progressive issues, the economy/jobs along with health care remain the top concerns for voters outside the two parties’ bases.

To win the narrative war this fall and winter and the election in 2020, what Republicans need now is fewer presidential tweets and a lot less chaos that continues to distract from the GOP’s positive economic record. As I’ve urged before, the president, at this moment, would be well-advised to tweet less and deliver more trade deals that will help solidify his economic successes and keep the focus on what matters.

Republicans may have to address some difficult issues like guns, health care and the federal debt this fall, but their challenge is far less complicated than what Pelosi and her divided caucus face.

As the Democratic presidential candidates have shifted to the extreme left, the debate on how to solve the nation’s problems has centered on how to move resources and services into the federal government rather than on proposals to increase jobs and wages or pay for their big-government plans. Whether it’s the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, open borders or college debt forgiveness, Democratic presidential candidates are running a primary campaign that puts a general election victory next year at risk. Emanuel is right.

That leaves Pelosi trying to juggle a caucus with growing numbers of extreme progressives at odds with her left-of-center members. If she offers up a more economy-focused platform, her centrists will be happy, but many more of her members will be frustrated that impeachment and Medicare for All and climate change didn’t lead the Democrats’ congressional agenda.

On the other hand, if she capitulates to her progressive wing, she hangs her centrists out to dry. They are left with a difficult dilemma: Vote against the progressives’ controversial proposals and face a possible primary, or vote for them and face a loss in the general election.

Pelosi must deal with another challenge in the coming weeks as she tries to keep her caucus in balance. Unlike Trump and Republicans who can point to a record of economic progress, Democrats have gotten little done so far in their first year running the House.

Pelosi likes to blunt that criticism by claiming that Democrats have passed plenty of bills and blaming the GOP-led Senate for holding up progress. But as Republicans learned when they controlled the House and Democrats in the Senate filibustered their bills, the public gives little credit unless legislation lands on a president’s desk for signature. Voters rarely give out A’s for effort.

The bottom line is that either party in control of the House can pass legislation, but without bipartisan cooperation to create bills that can pass both chambers, it’s an exercise in futility.

So as Congress reconvenes, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have to ask themselves some critical questions. Is it in the Democratic Party’s interest to cooperate with Republicans on a few key issues and in doing so, create a positive record to run on next year? Or is it strategically more advantageous to continue their policy of partisan confrontation and even impeachment, at the expense of actual legislative progress on issues that matter to voters?

It comes down to two fundamental choices for Democratic leaders on the Hill. They can choose confrontation by backing their presidential candidates’ “reckless” proposals and pit progressives against their party’s more centrist members and candidates.

Or they can choose bipartisan cooperation by rejecting impeachment and the progressives’ agenda and deciding to work with Republicans to get something done on issues like appropriations, health care and trade.

Confrontation, which has become the Democrats’ de facto political operating system on the Hill and in the presidential primaries, excites their increasingly doctrinaire base; but it turns off independents.

Cooperation or confrontation: a clear choice with very different outcomes for the country.

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 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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