Despite wins, Dems face an identity crisis

Despite wins, Dems face an identity crisis

Even after a stellar day at the polls on Tuesday, Democrats fear their lack of a clear message is a problem in winning over voters in next year’s midterm elections and down the road in 2020.

Election Day 2017 couldn’t have gone much better for the party, which won victories from coast to coast including the day’s top prize: Virginia’s governorship.

Yet many Democrats say the good day came despite an identity crisis within the party that shows few signs of ending.

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Former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who led messaging efforts for the House Democratic caucus during the last Congress, said he speaks frequently to former colleagues about their consternation over the party’s identity and lack of a unified message.

 

“I hear growing concern,” Israel said in an interview.

Asked what the root of the problem is, he replied: “If you don’t know who you are, you really can’t agree on what you’re going to say.”

The biggest fight is a carry-over from the painful 2016 primary, where supporters of both Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersMellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) Former Sanders campaign manager: Don't expect email list to be shared with DNC Adult film star: Trump and Stormy Daniels invited me to 'hang out' MORE (I-Vt.) at times felt as though they were fighting for their party’s soul. 

Since then, Sanders and his allies have been on the rise, and have sought to make the party move progressive. The Vermont independent’s introduction of single-payer health-care legislation is in some ways a measure both of the changing party and his own surge in power. A third of the Democratic caucus in the Senate has signed on as co-sponsors.

But the Sanders surge is unnerving other Democrats, who fear the party is verging too far to the left.

On Tuesday, Stephen Cloobeck, a major Democratic donor, expressed his frustration with the direction of the party and promised to stop donating if it becomes too progressive. 

“I can tell you if we go far left, I’m out,” Cloobeck said on MSNBC. “I’m out. We need middle ground.”

“It drives me nuts,” Cloobeck added. “So much so it would make me quit the party. And I’ve made it very clear: I’ll cut your money off. And others will do the same. We’ve had enough. We need a new brand.” 

Another donor interviewed by The Hill expressed the same fears — while also underlining worries that in resisting President Trump, Democrats haven’t come up with a compelling reason for voters to back their party. 

“It’s one of the reasons a lot of us aren’t writing checks right now. No one can tell you what direction we’re headed in,” the donor said. “ ‘Resist’ isn’t a party platform.” 

Democrats unnerved by Sanders have new arguments to tout after Virginia, where the Sanders-backed candidate, former Rep. Tom Perriello, was soundly defeated in the primary by Ralph Northam — who went on to crush Republican Ed Gillespie.

Those results suggest to some Democrats that they don’t have to run Sanders disciples to bring out their own voters.

This is unlikely to quiet liberals who believe Democrats lost in 2016 in part by running Clinton and not embracing progressive policies.

A CNN poll conducted by SSRS and released this week found that one-third of
progressives held an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.

The poll also showed other problems. Democrats won only a 37 percent approval rating, their lowest under the survey in 25 years. A majority of those surveyed — 54 percent — said they had an unfavorable view of the party. 

Yet the poll shows that Republicans are doing even worse: 61 percent of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of the party. And the poll shows that 41 percent of conservatives have an unfavorable view of the GOP.

Those figures, along with Trump’s own dismal approval ratings, leave some partisan Democrats thinking that resisting Trump is the only message the party will need.

Others say the party would be foolish if it just relies on Trump to self-destruct. 

In an interview on CNN Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) acknowledged that the party has failed to spell out what it stands for, or to come up with a message that appeals to the majority of Democrats. 

The poor numbers in the CNN poll mean “that we have to make very clear what our message is,” Speier said. “And I don’t think we have done an excellent job of doing that.” 

Voters, she added, “want to know what we’re going to produce. We know what the Republicans are producing in terms of a tax cut — it’s a huge scam and a huge tax cut for the wealthy and corporations — but what are we promoting? What are we producing? So I think we have to be much more alert to showing what the differences are.” 

Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University and a professor of political science, said that while the Trump focus can be helpful at times, it’s also preventing the party from highlighting their own message. 

“The current struggle over an affirmative message is further compounded by the fact that the negative messaging is taking up all the energy,” Reeher said. “Everything is about opposing Trump .”