Dems look to decide on midterm message

Dems look to decide on midterm message
© Greg Nash

House Democratic leaders seeking to condense their campaign platform into voter-friendly messaging bites are facing a number of options — and plenty of competition at the table.

Party leaders intend to repeat the playbook the party used in 2006, when they won control of the House with promises to prioritize a handful of specific policies largely designed to ease middle-class economic insecurity.

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Democrats plan to offer a similar platform later this year. The question facing leaders in the meantime, though, is how to hone the list so it resonates most loudly in crucial swing districts while also appeasing various party factions, each of which has its own idea about which issues deserve precedence.

“Politically, their preference is to have some agenda items and some broad ideas that the party will fight for, and enough vagueness that it’s hard to be pinned down,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University and political analyst for CNN.

“It’s literally a document to rally people, and I think the good ones are written that way.”

Many of the policies championed by Democrats — including proposals to hike the minimum wage, lower drug costs and protect the so-called Dreamers — have the overwhelming support of voters, according to public opinion polls. But Democrats have struggled mightily to turn that public sentiment into election gains in recent years, a failing they freely admit.

“In order for the public sentiment to make the difference, people have to know what is happening,” House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTrump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law Federal judge in Texas strikes down ObamaCare Trump names Mulvaney acting chief of staff MORE (D-Calif.) said last month. “And that is probably, I think, where Democrats have fallen short in terms of conveying that message — those priorities — in a very succinct, headline way, not fine-print way.”

As an early indication of the challenge they face, even party leaders are offering differing responses when asked what the Democrats should fast-track if they win the House gavel next year.

House Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerTerm limit fight highlights growing pains for Pelosi’s majority DeGette dropped from chief deputy whip spot Pelosi agrees to term limits vote; insurgency collapses MORE (D-Md.) said recently he’d “focus like a laser on job creation, infrastructure and skills training investment.”

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he’d like to prioritize health-care access, affordable college tuition and oversight of the Trump administration.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, added another item to the list: retirement security.

And Pelosi on Tuesday named four items on her wish list: infrastructure, campaign finance reform, tougher gun restrictions and help for the Dreamers — immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were children. She noted that Democrats have been urging Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report – Cohen says Trump knew payments were wrong | GOP in turmoil over Trump shutdown threat | Kyl to resign from Senate at year's end Trump leaves GOP in turmoil with shutdown looming Senate heads toward floor fight on criminal justice bill MORE (R-Wis.) to take up all those issues before the elections.

“We’d be hard put to call on the Speaker to do it, and then when we win, not do it,” Pelosi said.

For Democratic leaders, the competition over ideas has been heightened by the changes in the cultural, media and electoral landscape in the 12 years since they last took control of the House.

The minority caucuses have all grown in number and stature within the party; women now constitute roughly a third of the caucus; and the rise of President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE — combined with the outcry he’s sparked among Democrats — has only intensified the urgency surrounding their success in the midterms.

“There’s no question that the dynamics of having Trump and this administration making so many fundamental changes has different people focused on different priorities — all of which lots of people care about,” said a former Democratic leadership aide.

“To make the most of a potentially strong surge election, the party needs to embrace a wider perspective on issues and messaging.”

A senior Democratic aide acknowledged the “lack of cohesion” in the party’s early messaging, but identified a practical reason for the divide: amid growing criticism of the party’s current leaders, it remains unclear who will be guiding the party next year.

“Everyone’s so focused on the leadership races right now and no one knows who’s going to set the agenda,” the aide said. “There’s not the same coordination there was in ’06.”

Others, though, insist they’re right on track.

In 2006, the Democrats offered a broad list of principles and policy proposals — compiled under the heading “A New Direction for America” — which were then poll-tested and refined to a much shorter menu that became known as the “Six for ’06” plan.

After winning the House, Pelosi passed all six items in the first 100 hours of the new session. All but one eventually became law.

Keeping that model, the Democrats last summer launched their “Better Deal” platform — an ever-growing compilation of proposals focused almost exclusively on easing working-class economic concerns. The plan, as in 2006, is to poll the items over the summer and devise a trimmer message to present to voters in the immediate run-up to the midterm elections. It will keep the “Better Deal” banner.

“It’s almost mirror image of what we’re doing now,” said a second senior Democratic aide.

“I’m sure everyone has an opinion about what should be in [the final product], but it’ll be driven by numbers, not by personal preferences.”

It remains undetermined if the final messaging package will feature a series of specific policy proposals, as in 2006, or stick with more vague thematic talking points. To help answer those questions, the leaders of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee are making the rounds with rank-and-file members.

Zelizer, of Princeton, is offering some advice.

“You don’t want too much. In our current moment where attention span is pretty thin, that just overwhelms the voter. But more importantly, if you have too many specifics then you get bogged down in a debate about each,” Zelizer said.

“You’re trying to find that sweet spot.”