There's a lot of schadenfreude going around among Washington Democrats these days. I won't deny that many of us are enjoying the pain that Republicans are feeling as their presidential candidates so publicly destroy their party's brand.
Most of us believe our nominee will win the presidential election, we will retake control of the Senate, and that even a House majority is at least plausible. And we're not alone. On a daily basis, commentators from across the political spectrum, including some very prominent Republicans, are predicting the GOP will become the Humpty Dumpty party.
Maybe those forecasts are premature or maybe not, but I am one Democrat who isn't totally comfortable with our position in today's political world. While Republican primary election results certainly demonstrate that the GOP rank and file is alienated from their party establishment, I think there are dark clouds forming for the Democratic Party as well.
Just as Donald Trump's voters are screaming that government has failed them, Bernie Sanders' supporters are sending us a message too: We have failed to fulfill our promises to many in our base. We have watched as organized labor lost much of its political influence, a huge portion of its historic membership, and millions of unionized jobs. Minority voting rights have been abridged in state after state, and we have not been able to reverse the trend in Congress. We have not been able to raise the federal minimum wage or change the tax code to stop the growing gap between rich Americans and everyone else. We have undermined our distaste for big money in politics by our dependence on the same big money. In short, we have not produced for working Americans.
Sure, we can point to the obstructionist Republicans, but clearly one of the reasons Democrats are in the minority in both the House and Senate is that people who support our agenda haven't believed in us enough to go out and elect more of us.
But there's good news. Even though the Sanders and Trump voters (and the Clinton voters) don't share many policy priorities, they all are crying out for a government that actually works. As the party which stands for a strong federal government, Democrats should do a comprehensive physical exam (as opposed to the GOP's autopsy) and figure out what we must do and say to convince the American people that we know how to make our national government work for them, and that we intend to do just that.
So what does that entail?
First, Congressional Democrats should be much more aggressive in detecting and correcting mistakes, including instances of waste and abuse, in federal agencies. Republicans are aggressive in this arena because they like to show how incompetent government is. We should do it because we have a critical, vested interest in government working well. We should never hesitate to defend the government when it is unfairly accused, but our defenses will be more credible if we critique government when it is wrong.
We should not routinely defend every regulation that is criticized by Republicans or business interests. We must face the fact that not every regulation presents a public benefit, and some truly are unreasonable impositions on the private sector. Those of us who believe in robust regulation should insist on only effective and necessary ones. We should readily admit that there are widespread abuses in our social safety net programs, and that failing to do something to eliminate abuses does, in fact, jeopardize the programs for those who truly need them. These are programs that reflect core Democratic values, and we should be crusading for their improvement.
As we are currently in the minority, we should offer the Republican majority our genuine cooperation in providing true oversight - not simply partisan browbeating - over agencies, their authorizations, and their regulations. Then, when we recapture the majority, we should devote ourselves to such oversight as a top priority.
The dirty secret is that collectively, Congress is lazy. We don't want to do the hard work required to analyze the real life impact of the laws we enact and the rules and regulations that ensue. It's much easier to take up rhetorical positions in our default battle lines and throw meat to our bases.
Congressional Republicans don't like government and really don't want to make it work better. Democrats believe government can improve peoples' lives, that government is the way citizens organize their responsibilities to each other. We must be totally committed to making our government not just the best form of government in the world, but the most efficient and productive government in the world.
I realize that this is not a viable short-term electoral strategy; voters won't be swayed by a promise to make government work better. But if Democrats prove, over time, that we know how to govern, we will be rewarded not just with political victories, but with a society that supports the government it chooses.