Congressional Democrats, wounded by the November midterms, are failing to capture the political energy of the youth movement that has sprung up in the wake of recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio, and New York City. President Obama has met with young activists in the White House. He has gone on television to endorse peaceful protests and has spoken of his personal discontent with the "deep unfairness" in how the grand jury process can be manipulated by prosecutors to favor police. But the president, even the first black president, can only do so much.
It is up to Congress to address the cancerous distrust that young people and minorities harbor for the criminal justice system. Only Congress can bring the nation's attention to high alert with public hearings and legislation to repair a broken judicial structure.
The Congressional Black Caucus has called for hearings on the shooting death of Michael Brown. But it will be up to the House Republican majority to call the hearings and set the agenda.
Speaker John Boehner and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers have said they are "absolutely" open to hearings on the death of Eric Garner, a New York man choked by police as he was arrested for selling cigarettes. Boehner told reporters the deaths of Brown and Garner are "serious tragedies."
But Boehner's base voters — older, white Southern conservatives in particular — are reflexively quick to defend all police and are therefore likely to resist him if he allows hearings to take place. Unyielding pressure from House Democrats will be needed to force the Speaker's hand.
The same dynamic is also now coming into play around Obamacare.
The incoming Republican majority on Capitol Hill is looking for ways to dismantle the law. It is clear who will get hurt if that happens. Before the Affordable Care Act took effect, 28 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 lacked health insurance, as did 10 percent of children under 18. Those young Americans are looking to the Democrats to replicate the fury of the Tea Party caucus on the far right and become loud, unabashed advocates for the success of national health care.
President Obama can talk about the success of Obamacare, specifically the 25 percent drop in the total number of Americans without insurance. He can veto efforts to defund and repeal the health-care act. But it will be up to Democrats on Capitol Hill to wage the day-to-day fight and open eyes to the benefits of a program that is lagging in polls because of unyielding attacks from the GOP.
Don't expect to see Senate Democrats make the fight. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is already blaming Obamacare for the party's declining fortunes in Congressional races. The liberal heart of the party is going to have to find its blood, its passion in the House.
On both fronts — the police killings and health care — the central political audience is young America, the voting base that will determine Democrats' fortunes in 2016 and beyond. Almost a quarter of the U.S. population is under the age of 18. Another 36 percent of Americans are between the ages of 18 and 44. And these groups are filled with minorities, immigrants, and children of immigrants, as well as a disproportionate share of college graduates and single women of all races.
Congressional Democrats gave those voters little reason to go to the polls in 2014. No one on Capitol Hill was standing up for their agenda. As a result, exit polls from this year's midterms gave Democrats only an 11-percentage-point edge over Republicans among 18 to 29 year olds and a mere 3-point edge among 30 to 44 year olds.
Basically, the Democrats' lead over Republicans among young voters was cut in half in 2014. And among 18 and 19 year olds, turnout dropped from 19 percent in 2012 to 13 percent in the midterms, a loss of about 14 million voters.
The exit polls also showed a five-percentage-point jump in young voters who self-identify as Republicans — 31 percent this year as compared to 26 percent in 2012. The big question for the coming Congress is whether the House Democrats will get off the floor and fight for the interests of young voters.