If Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives next month, they could become the dynamic wedge that starts to revitalize national politics. How? By legislating aggressively on ignored issues that people care about. By opening up the frank debate Republican leaders have suppressed for the last decade. By dragging reluctant Democratic senators and presidential candidates toward embracing a more progressive agenda for 2008.
That is not a prediction, because "if" remains the operative unknown. But the ingredients are present for a much bigger deal than conventional wisdom in Washington assumes. The Wall Street Journal editorial page recognizes the threat to conservative hegemony. While George W. Bush would still be President and armed with the veto, the Journal warned, "the national debate would nonetheless shift notably left."
If Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader, becomes Speaker of the House, that is a big deal in itself. She will have reached the highest position of power (third in the line of presidential succession) ever achieved by a woman. The right demonizes her and the media occasionally make light of her skills, but Pelosi is stronger and tougher than her reputation. "Anybody who's ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me," Pelosi told Time magazine. She has consolidated her power where it counts, within the Democratic caucus.
Even if Republicans hold on to the Senate, a House majority for Democrats will gain voice and leverage, plus the clear power to block what remains of Bush's right-wing agenda: tearing up Medicare or repealing the estate tax and other tax relief for capital. The Democratic House caucus would be freed to set its own agenda and act on it. That dynamic will change the national conversation in the run-up to the next presidential election.
If this happens, expect a flurry of long-stalled but popular legislation to be passed promptly in the House, with likely votes from nervous Republican moderates. Freewheeling debate will be revived. The interplay between House and Senate will suddenly require compromises with liberal Democrats instead of the lockstep conformity imposed by the Bush White House.
Similar circumstances arose three times during the twentieth century when the landscape was altered decisively by off-year Congressional elections--in 1910, 1930 and 1958. Each time, Democrats gained working majorities in the House and began acting on progressive or liberal ideas, even though a Republican President remained in office to block them. Most of those measures did not become law, but never mind. The action re-energized the opposition party and jump-started momentum that led to major reform eras--the presidencies of Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson.
This time a national consensus for fundamental change has not yet formed, and the House Democrats look timid by comparison. But they have chosen a reality-based strategy that offers practical promises over big ideas. Their campaign theme, "A New Direction for America," does not embrace big-spending goals like universal healthcare (the votes aren't there yet). But it does promise action on bread-and-butter liberal legislation Democrats feel certain they can pass, at least in the House, and these issues speak to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
It's not Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," the high-visibility stunt that accompanied the Republican blowout of 1994 but produced trivial results once the GOP controlled the House. The Democrats' agenda is more cautious, but it has the virtue of being real--doable steps toward restoring the public's faith in the efficacy of government. Dems reason that this election will be won or lost not by campaign rhetoric but on how voters feel about Bush and his war and the economy. Why confuse the issue with a grandiose wish list?