If this election was any lesson, it was that almost anything can happen, even when the Democrats are campaigning on bread-and-butter issues like lower prescription drug prices, higher wages and childcare.
And yet, strangely enough, most political analysts are banking on this to be nothing more than the gift that keeps on giving. They seem to be saying that the party needs to make sure it lives up to its promise of change, and then just wait and hope it can continue to harvest. That the bar must be raised at least a little higher for Democrats, but if that weren’t the case, they said, they would have declared victory.
It’s perhaps tempting to believe those analysts. It is entirely understandable to think so. Nothing is certain in American politics in this moment and all the signs and articles are pointing to a future where the pendulum could swing back to Republicans and Republicans alone.
So, barring any very specific political plans of the moment from President-elect Donald Trump, or any big changes in the nature of the electoral map and election outcomes, Republicans will remain in charge of Congress and the White House. And, perhaps, the Republican-controlled Congress will repeat, often more quickly than most expect, some of the fiscal party’s worst policies and legislated actions.
But it might not have to be that way.
Should an opportunity arise for Democrats to regain ground – to change course, to tear down the barriers that are impeding access to opportunity, or for Democrats to show more leadership on all the hot topics of a new Congress and Senate, the party has the ability to seize that opportunity.
If the next three years are filled with not one, but several opportunities for the Democrats to exercise that power, they should take it. The problem is that, as senators, the Democratic caucus must balance being a check on their Republican colleagues against the larger interests of their own party, which are ultimately dependent on the leadership of the White House and Congress.
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It’s not always clear how to do this balancing act, especially as times of great tension between Republicans and Democrats grow stronger in the days and weeks after Trump’s victory.
As it stands, the party has a lot to consider in order to remain in the best interest of their party, their interests and the American people they are sworn to represent.
Though the need to clearly demonstrate what they would do differently under Democratic leadership is compelling, Democrats will also have to decide how to reconcile that promise with the constant balancing act that is the nature of any political party in Washington.
Then there’s the question of who should represent the Democratic party. Republicans have every incentive not to act as a check on Trump, but the same pressure on them is not going to stop Democrats from doing it.
And, finally, there’s the question of who should win the fight on behalf of Americans’ interest if and when Democrats are able to show they can answer those calls. Trump won’t lead Democrats into a new direction, it will be up to the party’s leaders to prove themselves worthy of being called on by the American people.
This is a tall order. It’s one that’s easy to say Democrats must prepare for if and when their personal aspirations for the coming year, and the election, clash with their principles and priorities as they push their own agendas. But is this the time to fall in line with the status quo as the constraints of the party politics crowd out the alternative? Or is this the time for Democrats to chart their own path?