Will Democrats Get It?

Washington Matters

Will Democrats Get It?

Barring a dramatic shift in public sentiment, this will be a huge year for congressional Democrats. They are likely to end up with a firmer grasp on both chambers of Congress than they have enjoyed in decades. But then comes the real test of whether such a shift in power is temporary or the beginning of a new era of Democratic political dominance.

Democrats are likely to tighten their grip on power considerably by broadening the base and reach of the party. They will do it by winning in Southern and Western states and districts that were once seriously, deeply red -- doing so with moderate-to-conservative candidates. House Republicans complain that Democrats are winning in Republican districts by running candidates who are pretending to be Republicans. At first blush, they would seem to have a point. Many of those recently elected and running for this year are very conservative. Pro-gun, anti-immigration reform, anti-abortion and suspicious of government power and regulation

Indeed, this mix has already caused some bumps for Democrats, leading to questions about whether they will be able to unite and legislate effectively

I actually see this as less of a problem and more as an opportunity for the party. Since congressional Republicans have largely abandoned the left and center, Democrats have a chance to create a governing majority for years to come -- if they listen to and respect their conservative and moderate members, something Republicans rarely did with their moderate to liberal lawmakers.

Take, for example, Rep. Travis Childers, the Democrat who unexpectedly won the special election for a seat long held by the GOP in Mississippi. Compare the issues page of the campaign web sites of Childers and his GOP opponent, Greg Davis (they are running against each other again in November for a full two-year term), and you get a sense of what I mean.

Davis's site looks like the long familiar set of GOP talking points: cut taxes and spending, strengthen defense and national security, and "defend our values" by standing up for rights of gun owners and opposing abortion. Most of those are positions Childers also holds, but his Web site focuses on other matters -- starting with creating jobs, strengthening the economy and improving education. Next come improving care for seniors, ensuring better access to health care. And, finally, a call for non-ideological, bipartisan solutions to national, regional and local problems.

In other words, Childers used his stand on social issues to take them off the table, so he can lay out  priorities and issues that are not just broadly shared by his party but are also of huge concern to anxious voters facing rising costs for food and gas, growing unemployment and out-of-reach health insurance. Democrats are perfectly happy to have new members and candidates with those priorities in the fold.

There is bound to be friction on other issues, but Democrats have grown far more tolerant of fellow party members with conservative social views. If they are willing to take their lumps on some votes -- and that is a big if -- the party may very well have the votes in the next Congress to break some of the deadlocks that have snarled Congress for so long on so many issues, such as a children's health care bill and jobs and training programs for workers dislocated by trade and globalization in the short term and health care reform and reining in entitlement reform in the long term. And that's the Democrats biggest plus and biggest vulnerability.

As I wrote recently, the biggest problem for congressional Republicans right now is failing to recognize what may be at the heart of this campaign: Americans are deeply disturbed by how we govern -- or fail to govern, actually. A large Democratic majority will be given little leeway for failing to act. That could be an advantage, no matter who wins the presidency because it likely would force Congress to seek commonsense compromises.  Such a development could be very good for a nation sick of hyperpartisanship.