By Gerald F. Seib
Stick around Washington long enough and you will learn a simple rule: Success also brings risk. Danger comes calling when the winning side in a political fight either overreaches in its hour of triumph or fails to turn newly won political capital into something useful.
This is the risk for Democrats right now. There is no doubt they won—convincingly—in their showdown with President Trump over his demand for billions of dollars to build a wall along the southern border. They stared down the president during a monthlong partial government shutdown, and in the end they got exactly what they were demanding: a temporary reopening of the government without providing any money for the wall.
Yet the shutdown drama also carried three little-noticed problems for Democrats.
First, they now have spent the opening period of their new control of the House of Representatives focused not on their priorities—health care in particular—but instead on Mr. Trump’s top priority, immigration.
Second, the shutdown prevented the new Democratic House leadership, and all those new House members elected last November, from starting off by demonstrating they can govern effectively.
And third, the shutdown mess sullied everybody’s reputation, at least a bit. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that positive feelings about the Democratic party fell to 35% this month from 39% in December. That means the share of Americans who have positive feelings about Democrats is essentially no different from the 34% who have positive feelings about Republicans.
Now both Democrats and the president enter a crucial three-week period in which the government will be funded while the two parties try to work out a compromise on border security. Will Democrats accept some funding for a border wall—something they were willing to swallow just a couple of months ago? Or will they continue to try to deny Mr. Trump any wall money? That hard-line stance would please Democratic activists who want to keep fighting the president on all fronts—but also would run the danger that Democrats come to be seen by middle-of-the-road voters as the unreasonable party.
Where, in short, does the Democrats pressing their advantage end and overreach begin?
John Delaney, who just retired as a Democratic House member to run for president, advises his colleagues to try to win legal status for Dreamers—young immigrants brought here illegally as children—in return for a larger border-security package that includes some funding for a border “barrier.” That, he argues, would show that Democrats are “for things” rather than simply “against things.”
“Even though the Democrats and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi won the shutdown, in the eyes of most Americans outside the Beltway the whole thing was an embarrassment and was an example of how broken our politics really are,” Mr. Delaney, who represented Maryland in the House, argues. “The vast majority of the American people want their leaders to compromise to get things done, not stick to rigid ideology.”
In particular, Mr. Delaney advocates a set of bills to deal with “real issues facing Americans,” including enhancing infrastructure, protecting digital privacy, dealing with the opioid crisis, lowering prescription-drug costs and perhaps an expansion of the earned-income tax credit for lower-income workers.
“The vast majority of the American people want their leaders to compromise to get things done, not stick to rigid ideology.” —John Delaney, former Democratic congressman from Maryland and 2020 presidential candidate
David Axelrod, who was the top political strategist for former President Obama, says Democrats succeeded in showing the president “that Congress is a co-equal branch of government and won’t be cowed or bullied by his antics.”
But, he adds that “it was a messy month for Washington as a whole” and sounds a cautionary note for fellow Democrats: “Most of the new members of the House were elected on a pledge to do more than stand up to Trump. They campaigned to earnestly pursue substantive policy advances on problems like the high cost of health care, child care and education. At a minimum, they need to get caught trying.”
The danger for Democrats is that, in a continued fight over border security, they could become the party that appears absolutist by opposing variations on a wall or fence they supported previously.
Certainly Mr. Trump, in an interview with The Journal on Sunday, was laying the groundwork for painting the Democrats as the obstructionists going forward: “If everything goes like this, nothing will happen for two years other than they’ll try to get me out of office in a different way because they know they’re not going to beat me in the election.”
So Democrats are framing the next three weeks as a time of debate on “smart border security” rather than a wall. After that, says Donna Brazile, the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, the party “will get back to regular order” and its agenda. She notes that health care will be the focus of four committee hearings in Congress on Tuesday.
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