Caucus Division: A DC Tradition

Charles Cooper

As campaigning comes to an end, members of Congress will return to the Capitol for conversations within Republican and Democratic caucuses on post-election outcomes and agenda moving forward.

It’s that time of year again. Next week, members of Congress will return to the Capitol after a grueling election season that came with a good number of surprises, upsets, and close calls. While this return officially signals the end of campaigning (for a while), it also spurs a longstanding tradition of uncomfortable “family discussions” within the Republican and Democratic caucuses about the future of the party, who should control the message and agenda going forward, and who is to blame – or celebrate – for the election outcome. Like every other post-election return to DC, these discussions will be difficult, but productive, and will serve as an important reminder to everyone about the ideological spectrum within their own parties.
It is not surprising that moderate Democrats will return to DC expressing concerns around progressive messaging that was used against them – and their colleagues who lost reelection – by Republicans on the campaign trail. Campaign rivals in swing districts strategically connected them to proposals around the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and defunding the police. Moderate Democrats view these as a major political risk, while progressives credit the more liberal agenda for bringing enough voters to win the White House.
The conversation on the Republican side of the aisle will not be much different. Moderate Republicans will highlight the impact of Trump policies on their election and will advocate for a return to more traditional issues, like tax cuts, a strong national defense, and fiscal restraint. Conservatives, including the House Freedom Caucus, will likely point to a lack of broad support within the caucus for Trump policies as a major factor in losing the White House and will push to double down on the Trump agenda over the next two years.
This intraparty “tug of war” over messaging and policy is not new – and it is not entirely bad. In fact, it provides an opportunity for each party to re-align itself, at least, find common ground that links caucus members together. While the process may not fully unify the entire group, it generally ensures that the bookends of the caucus do not control the agenda.
Returning to DC with post-election frustrations is not new and shouldn’t worry about. Why should it be surprising that a Democrat from a liberal California district has dramatically different messaging than a moderate Democrat in rural Virginia? At the same time, shouldn’t we assume that a conservative Republican from Texas may campaign on issues that a moderate Republican from New York would avoid at all costs?
This is what makes party politics so complicated and why congressional leaders are undervalued when it comes to the behind-the-scenes work they do to keep their caucuses unified. These post-election conversations are healthy and helpful to maintaining geographic and ideological diversity within each caucus.
While people may view these “family discussions” as a threat to the party, they are actually part of a longstanding post-elect tradition that will help remove some of the divisions fostered by the campaign trail on both sides of the aisle.

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