Washington • For House Democrats, this will be health care week. How many voters will notice?
The answer will be instructive about how the constitutional crisis that is upon us will affect action on every other problem voters expect their government to confront.
President Trump is engaged, as is his way, in a two-faced game. He says that by demanding the Mueller report’s evidence of obstruction of justice, Democrats are mounting a vendetta that will prevent Washington from governing. Yet it is Trump who keeps the investigation at the heart of the news. He talks and tweets about it nonstop. He is impeding the House’s accountability efforts across-the-board in the wake of the Mueller report, blocking access to administration officials and documents — including his tax returns. The House cannot leave his insult to its constitutional powers unanswered. It’s widely conjectured that Trump is courting impeachment because it would promote the “us vs. them” approach to politics with which he’s most comfortable.
But none of this resolves the House Democrats' quandaries over the most effective ways to push back, and whether to move quickly to impeachment.
The easiest call is to keep legislating. The package of health care bills they began passing last week and are scheduled to complete in the coming days is designed to keep the promises that virtually every Democrat ran on last year: to guard the Affordable Care Act from the administration's efforts to repeal or gut it; to protect the insurance of Americans with preexisting conditions; to contain prescription drug prices; and to prevent the rise of "junk insurance" that could wreck the insurance markets.
The Democrats scored a modest early victory in gaining attention for their health care push. On Thursday, Democrats passed a bill that would block Trump administration efforts to facilitate the sale of skimpy insurance plans. It got media hits, but mostly on the inside pages of newspapers and lower down on websites. The vote itself, amidst all the Trump news, was a signal that the House would continue to pass legislation and keep its pledges.
Nonetheless, there is a fundamental flaw in the standard account of how Democrats who won Republican seats in 2018 are affected by all this. The conventional view is that these Democrats won on health care and other bread-and-butter issues and that concern over Trump was secondary.
It’s certainly true that economic issues were important to swing voters in their districts. But this analysis underestimates the extent to which the backlash against Trump was important in boosting Democratic turnout in every district.
The bulk of the voters Democratic challengers had a chance of winning were already dissatisfied with the president, his efforts to repeal the ACA being just one element of their discontent. Victorious candidates, particularly in suburban districts, typically linked their appeals on issues with broad promises to end the rubber-stamping of the president's approach.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who ousted a five-term GOP incumbent, was one of them. "I ran on health care and infrastructure and getting things done for our district and our country," he said in an interview, "but I never hesitated in talking about checks and balances, decency and the rule of law."
Malinowski is deeply involved in passing the health care package, but he argues that his party has an inescapable responsibility to ensure that Trump's "unacceptable conduct" in 2016 and beyond "never happens again."
Part of the response, Malinowski says, should be legislative — for example, requiring candidates who are offered foreign help to report the proposition to the Justice Department, and outlawing the sharing of campaign information, such as polling, with a foreign power.
When it comes to impeachment, Malinowski says what matters most is keeping Trump's abuses from establishing a precedent. "If we do nothing, there's a risk of setting that precedent," he says of the House. But if the House impeached and the Senate acquitted, he argues, the acquittal itself might be read as sending exactly the wrong message for the future.
For now, Malinowski supports Speaker Nancy Pelosi's efforts to fight Trump's stonewalling without moving immediately to impeachment. But he does not pretend that the dilemma over impeachment can be avoided indefinitely.
Malinowski's thinking is a window into the challenges the Democrats face. The least of them is passing bills, which they'll continue doing. In deciding on impeachment, the House's newest members know they were elected with an obligation to take on one of the most corrupt administrations in our history. They're also aware how much depends on the choices they make.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.