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Democrats In The House Have More Power. What Will They Do With It?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What's a smart way for Democrats to play their hand? Democrats, of course, control the House now. They'd like to pass some bills. They would also like to check President Trump and pave the way for the 2020 election. One bold new voice belongs to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The freshman lawmaker took a turn on "60 Minutes" last night. And in a conversation with Anderson Cooper, she flatly called the president a racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think he's a symptom of a problem.

ANDERSON COOPER: What do you mean?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: The president certainly didn't invent racism, but he's certainly given a voice to it and expanded it and created a platform for those things.

COOPER: Do you believe President Trump is a racist?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yeah, yeah. No question.

INSKEEP: She also talked of a top tax rate of up to 70 percent to pay for a Green New Deal. Another lawmaker used profanity while talking of impeachment. And then there's the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who's been much more measured, saying, for example, that if impeachment ever came, it would have to be bipartisan. Margie Omero is watching all this. She is a Democratic strategist, hosts a podcast called The Pollsters, is a regular guest here. Good morning.

MARGIE OMERO: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by.

OMERO: No problem.

INSKEEP: How are Democrats doing at seizing the conversation?

OMERO: Well, look, I think the swearing-in ceremony, the incredible diversity and excitement people felt about the candidates in the newly elected Congress was an incredibly powerful moment that really made Democrats feel very excited and energized. And look at the things that have happened, what the new Democratic majority has been trying to do - HR 1, which is a broad bill that would reform the way elections work, would try to take corporate special interest money out of politics, would make voting and elections more fair. They're trying to reopen the government. You've been talking about that this morning.

INSKEEP: Sure.

OMERO: And that's obviously an important priority. So I think the things that Democrats are talking about are the things that voters say they want to see done.

INSKEEP: Well, are there voters on the left side of this spectrum who are clamoring for an impeachment?

OMERO: You know, look, I think there are a lot of tensions and excitement from some folks on the left. I think what voters want to see - they feel that government is broken and Washington is broken. We have a new poll that's come out this morning. Eighty percent of Americans feel that Washington and government is broken. And...

INSKEEP: Oh, is it only 80 percent? OK.

OMERO: (Laughter) Right. I mean, you have a majority who feel the president lies more than other presidents. You have a majority who feel that - the Democrat feels that that Trump feels that he is above the law - that he thinks he's above the law. So there are a lot of people, a majority of Americans, who are really concerned and exhausted and feel anxious about what's happening right now.

INSKEEP: Now, let's note that in the election just passed, a lot of Democrats did not talk about the president that much. They kind of took a pass on direct shots at the president and tried to talk about their substantive ideas - what they wanted to favor. Some people noticed that Elizabeth Warren over the weekend, when she went to Iowa - she's doing some preliminary presidential campaigning - she was perceived as generally avoiding saying the president's name unless someone prompted her with a question in a town hall meeting kind of format. Is it smarter for Democrats to simply play their game, pass their bills even if they're not going to become law and let the president sink or swim on his own?

OMERO: Well, you have a lot of Republicans who don't want to talk about the president, either.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

OMERO: I mean, you have Senator Cory Gardner out of Colorado, even though he votes with the president almost, you know, most of the time, trying to distance himself in a couple ways. So this is something that both parties have been doing. And I think, you know, voters voted for Democrats because they were interested in protecting health care. I mean, I did dozens and dozens of focus groups throughout 2018, and people were talking about the issues. They're - voters are much more nuanced and complex in how they are approaching this than, I think, the - a lot of times we give them credit for.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another thing. We have elsewhere in the program today Jonah Goldberg, the conservative commentator for National Review, who observed that the wall - this battle over the wall that has led to the government shutdown - it's a symbol. It's a symbolic debate. And in Jonah's view, it's hard to compromise a symbol because how do you give up on symbolism? You can't just cut the difference on the money that the president is asking for a wall. That's a problem for the president. Is it also a problem for Democrats? They can't just say, OK, take 1 billion instead of 5 billion or whatever because it has become symbolically difficult to agree to something that the speaker of the House calls an immorality?

OMERO: I think that, you know, the president certainly doesn't have a lot of credibility on issues like immigration with a lot of folks on the left and even with a lot of independents who have strongly, strongly opposed his position on things like family separation and taking children away from their parents at the border. So I think that's where a lot of this is coming from. But on immigration specifically - this is also true on other issues - there are a lot of voters who can see there is a path where we can come together and have reasonable discussions and come up with policy solutions. And I think that that's what voters want to see happen with the next Congress.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, are Democrats comfortable just letting this shutdown go on for weeks?

OMERO: I think it's harmful for voters. It's harmful for everybody. People don't want to see Washington broken. I think everybody wants to see Washington get back to work.

INSKEEP: Margie Omero, thanks so much.

OMERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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