Without question, the next two weeks will be vitally important for solidifying Republican and Democratic strategies in advance of Election Day.
President Trump’s State of the Union Address will officially outline the White House’s agenda for the rest of the year. Some of what the president will highlight will be no more than messaging priorities, some will be policy demands for Congress, and all will come with varied levels of realistic opportunity. Nonetheless, it will provide important insights into where Republicans will focus their efforts, as in many cases those efforts are closely coordinated with the president.
More relevant to Congress, however, will be the Republican and Democratic retreats, which are occurring this week and next, respectively. These will be an opportunity for the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus to gather their colleagues and reevaluate current efforts, and plan the policy agenda and messaging going forward. They are also usually a good venue for “family discussions” where differences around direction can be discussed, debated, and (in some cases) resolved. It’s an opening for colleagues to network, get on the same page, develop an agenda, and voice frustrations. For leadership, these retreats can bring some added anxiety, as their end goal is to return to Washington, DC with a unified message…for the rest of the year – a goal not easily accomplished.
Similarly, for those hoping to impact policy this year, this two-week timeframe also has significance. New or modified priorities will need to be molded to fit within the party agendas and be messaged in a way that is sensitive to the fact that a major election is seemingly just around the corner. It can be a challenge for everyone within the policymaking process to adjust a message and policy plan nine months prior to an election, but it is an essential part of a successful strategy going forward.
We both served in staff positions within leadership and experienced this two-week period many times – both in the majority and in the minority. In some cases, these coming weeks provide new opportunities to bring the party together, increase confidence among policymakers, develop some needed message discipline, and provide an agenda that colleagues can rally around. It doesn’t always work out that way. As the election draws near, everyone evaluates the strategy differently and some will choose to either ignore it or work to adjust it mid-course. It’s a challenge for leadership, especially with an election on the horizon.
Those who only focus on the major policy challenges directly ahead (i.e. government funding, immigration, etc.) and miss the nuances in how both parties will adjust their strategies in the coming weeks, may be surprised to learn that their own priorities may suddenly be out of step with the direction and focus of Congress for the remainder of the year. For those paying attention, however, party adjustments in the next two weeks will provide valuable insight into what we can expect from both sides of the political aisle in the months ahead.