Juan Williams

Juan Williams: Dems finally focus on message

According to a Gallup survey earlier this year, 44 percent of Democrats describe themselves as liberal.

But 41 percent of America's Democrats self-identify as moderates. Another 15 percent say they are conservatives.

A Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren supporter looking at those numbers might conclude the energy in the party lives in its liberal base.

That would mean the best approach to the 2018 congressional races is to go bold against President Trump, who is currently struggling with record-low approval numbers and a failure to get a major bill through Congress in his first six months.

But last week, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 51 percent of registered voters said Trump is "not a factor" in how they will vote in the 2018 midterm elections.

Only 24 percent of registered voters said they planned to vote in opposition to Trump. And that is countered by the 20 percent who say they will go to the polls solely to support congressional Republicans backing Trump.

That split - a 4-point deficit for Trump - is smaller than the 10-point disadvantage for President Obama going into the 2014 midterms or the 14-point disadvantage for President Bush going into the 2006 midterms.

"A majority of Americans see the Democratic Party as 'just standing against Trump' rather than presenting a coherent alternative - a stance that may not be enough to get voters to the polls next year," according to an ABC News report on the poll.

That is bad news for Democrats, who historically suffer a major fall-off in voter turnout during non-presidential, midterm elections - most notably among younger voters as well as black and Latino voters.

The good news for Democrats is that the party's congressional leaders, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are this week introducing a legislative agenda to give voters reasons to back Democrats.

The new plan presents Democrats as the party creating jobs; offering job training; keeping healthcare costs low while making college affordable; and pushing higher wages including a hike in the minimum wage. The plan is called: "A Better Deal - Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages."

This is the "strong, bold, sharp-edged and common sense economic agenda" Schumer promised in a television interview last month.

Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.), who is the most popular national politician with a 57 percent approval rating, has been calling for this kind of clear, Trump-free branding to convince voters that Democrats are "on the side of the working class of this country."

But what about the thrill that comes from fighting Trump? What about the blood sport of responding to his bullying tweets and his name-calling; and giving attention to the ongoing probe into his campaign's alleged ties to Russia in the 2016 race?

That fight is a "fool's errand," according to Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Writing in The New York Times, Phillips argued Democrats are never going to win over Trump voters. He sees only a waste of time in trying to win "support from conservative, white working-class voters susceptible to racially charged appeals."

Phillips favors a focus on getting Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton last year to come out for the midterms - with specific attention to black voters whose turnout rates dropped in 2016. He also wants to win back Democrats who opted to vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party or Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee.

The opposing view calls for Democrats to reach out to Trump voters.

Democrats have to "move to the center and reject the siren calls of the left, whose policies and ideas have weakened the party," according to Mark Penn, who served as chief strategist in Clinton's 2008 run for the presidential nomination.

This debate about the right message and the right audience for congressional Democrats going into 2018 extends to uncertainty about the right candidates to run for president in 2020.

Who would be on the perfect ticket for Democrats to keep Trump from a second term in the White House?

Following the National Governors Association meeting this month, two Democratic governors - Montana's Steve Bullock and Rhode Island's Gina Raimondo - are getting a lot of attention in Washington.

They are not political firebrands like Sanders or Warren. They don't go on liberal political talk shows.

But they have established themselves as solution-oriented politicians able to win with Democrats while attracting support from independents and Republicans.

Bullock, working with a Republican legislature in a state Trump won by 20 points, expanded Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act and was able to increase the state budget for higher education.

Raimondo had similar success in expanding the Democrats' base. She raised the minimum wage, brought new jobs to the state and is pushing to give students tuition-free education at state colleges and universities.

But can back-to-basics politicians excite the liberal base of the party in the Trump era?

Even with a forward-looking political agenda on Capitol Hill, emerging stars among the governors and Trump's never-ending troubles, the Democrats are still playing second fiddle to the daily Trump eruptions in the press.

But for the first time since the shock of last November, the Democrats' search for the right message and right messenger is finally fired up and ready to go.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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