Democrats risk doing too little with the power they have in Washington

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Back in 2010, I remember Democrats in hard Republican districts walking to the House floor with faces as red as the regions they represented. They argued that our legislative agenda was too aggressive for those moderate voters they needed for victory in the midterms. There was the $780 billion economic stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act, and the clean energy bill that established an emissions trading plan, to name a few. One colleague told me, “I can survive this or that, but not all of the above.”

Turns out he and other Democrats were right about losing their seats, but wrong about that agenda being too ambitious. The problem was not that the Democrats did too much. It was that they could not do more on time for voters to feel an economic recovery by the midterms. Unemployment was almost 10 percent with 14 million out of work. This insecurity framed an environment that led to a pickup of over 60 seats for Republicans. Two years later, however, voters could feel the effects of the measures. Barack Obama won his second term and Democrats gained seats.

That is why the Democrats must not whittle down measures to rescue the economy. They can be bold and strategic. Ghosts of departed Democrats in the past haunt many facing tough midterms in 2022. The conventional wisdom is that Democrats are set to lose their slim majority with both the House and the Senate. For the last century, the party of the president has gained seats in both the chambers of Congress only twice, in 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt, and then in 2002 under George Bush.

But those two elections can offer hope to Democrats. In both cases, the nation was in a moment of crisis. The New Deal gave Americans progress out of the Great Depression. The response to 9/11 was viewed as decisive and demonstrable. Midterms tend to fuel a referendum on the president. But the 2022 race looks more like those historic midterms than the usual environment. Swing voters will not rebuke a president if the pandemic is over, business has opened, and the economy is growing.

Here is a case of how politics may have produced anemic policy in 2010. With a tanking economy, many experts said that a stimulus of more than $1 trillion was needed to have immediate vital effects. That number was whittled way down to make it more palatable. So the optics outweighed the policy. The strong medicine the economy needed was diluted to low dose aspirin. Without sustained evidence of a change in the economy at home, voters chose to change the majority in the House.

However, being bold does not mean overreach of a mandate. The key to victory for Democrats in 2022 is to show voters the pandemic is over and the economy is back. I would add the legislative initiative on a significant infrastructure measure that rebuilds the country and has the prospect of attracting moderate Republicans. While Democrats rebuild the economy, Donald Trump continues to batter his party. He is not interested in saving Republicans. He is interested in saving himself in the political arena and will force his brand on all primary ballots in the midterms.

Bipartisanship is key but not at the price of relief to make a difference in the lives of Americans. Placating must not mean diluting measures to a point where they do nothing in the short term. Next year, few voters will remember how many Republicans supported a critical bill. But they will remember whether that bill provided aid to come out of this pandemic, take the boards off stores, and send people back to work.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.

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