DNC torn over Biden messaging as midterms loom
Democratic National Committee (DNC) insiders are debating how to handle the disappointments of President Biden’s biggest legislative fallouts, adding to the already mounting sense of despair in a party searching for a 2022 comeback.
As Biden passes the one-year mark of his inauguration, some involved with the party committee say the ground game phase leading up to his first midterm is already challenging, with little or mixed guidance about how to prop up an administration that has so far failed to deliver on basic promises.
While officials desperately want to keep Democrats in power, some sources say there’s a lack of consensus about how to do that from outside the White House. And the thought that things could go downhill is further depressing those supportive of the president’s agenda who want to see him succeed.
“We’ve never been consulted on them, about how to frame them, about what impact we’ve had,” said one DNC member in touch with leadership about how to message around the chance that a voting rights bill and Build Back Better could both collapse completely.
“Talking points are written by people who we don’t even know who they are,” the member said. “You’ve got people on the DNC — from state chairs, to elected national committee people, to union leaders — who ought to be consulted about these things, who aren’t.”
Democrats are in a tough spot. Goodwill is running out. And for all the momentum Biden earned after replacing former President Trump last January, the excitement level is now lower than ever.
Over the past year, the president has sustained pushback from a small faction within his own party, which has effectively rebuked the more optimistic vision that Democrats alone can change the country’s biggest problems.
The grace period that Biden once enjoyed has also diminished, with some questioning his desire to push for much of anything beyond what’s already been accomplished. They see Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) as the obvious barriers to getting two critical victories, but few say the president is blameless.
“There are things that Biden could choose to do,” said Jeri Shepherd, a DNC committee member from Colorado. “My sense is that he doesn’t have the political will to.”
That sentiment is spilling over to some in DNC world, including longtime committee members who argue the messaging from leaders is not matching the reality of the political gridlock facing the administration.
Democrats like Shepherd say there’s been “occasional” pointed communication from top officials regarding November, but that it’s diluted and reads more like wishful thinking than strategic calculations.
“Most of the messaging that we’ve been invited to consider has been definitely more of a positive tone,” she said. “That’s not all bad. But at the same time, I think some of the messaging has [been] missing.”
“We need to be paying attention to more of our grassroots and not trying to placate the donor class,” she said.
A spokesperson for the DNC downplayed any tensions.
Organizers at the party level have been working to mobilize support for what they see as Biden’s must-do items. If the Senate doesn’t amend the filibuster — a procedural change that Manchin and Sinema have been dead set against for months — there is little to no hope of signing a voting rights bill, or a slew of other consequential legislation, into law ahead of Election Day.
While Biden delivered a strong rebuke of voter suppression, many Democrats lamented his words as insufficient if the two moderate senators don’t budge.
To that end, some within the party are critical of Biden and his allies for offering what they say is something of a false promise to the public that sets the expectations too high and minimizes what has been achieved.
Sean Dugar, a DNC delegate and organizer from Oakland, Calif., said there have been “internal conversations among members of the committee as to the importance of passing legislation” and that many still have hope that parts will pass.
But like other Democrats, he acknowledged that a best-case scenario is far from certain and expected to have more talks if Democrats “are not able to pass something as noncontroversial as people having the right and the ability to vote.”
Others within the DNC see productive movement in a committee that has undergone a facelift during the early Biden years.
The president tapped Jaime Harrison, a member of South Carolina’s party faithful and a close confidant of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), to serve as chairman.
Harrison has since pledged to give more autonomy to states, empowering them to tailor their approaches to fit their constituencies.
That is particularly relevant now as Biden and Democrats prepare for a midterm cycle that is expected to be tough for so-called front-line candidates in swing states and districts.
To some at the DNC, that means two things in practice: picking apart the existing bills to pass individual portions and turning the attention back to Republicans as the opposition party that is making Americans’ lives worse off.
“The conversations that have really been happening, particularly advice from the state parties, is if you can’t get the big packages through, break them into smaller packages and get people on the record with different votes,” Tina Podlodowski, the chair of the Washington state Democratic Party, told The Hill on Wednesday.
Podlodowski is not alone in that view.
Other DNC sources said the party committee needs to simultaneously stress legislation that has already been passed, including a historic bipartisan infrastructure bill, in the thick of a pandemic, as well as parts of other packages.
Turning the attention to other success stories is the wisest approach, she said, especially when the message is targeted locally and not at the overall national mood plaguing Biden.
“I don’t think any of us, particularly in the state parties, are in a mood to be gloom and doom,” Podlodowski said.
“We want to be on the attack and we want to be showing exactly who is the roadblock here and what we need to do to get rid of them.”
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