Dems claim unity, but are still in search of a message

Dems claim unity, but are still in search of a message
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BALTIMORE — House Democrats on Friday wrapped up their annual conference boasting a unified front against the Trump administration but without a clear strategy for reclaiming power.

The three-day retreat in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor marked the first such gathering since a brutal election cycle that put Republicans in control of the White House and Congress; sparked a revolt among rank-and-file Democrats seeking a new direction; and prompted an internal probe into how the party can claw its way out of the minority. 

The Democrats have been energized by the millions of people who have hit the streets in recent weeks to protest President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE’s early moves on immigration and women’s reproductive health, among other issues. And they say Trump’s tempestuous start has been a windfall in their effort to field talented 2018 candidates.

But when it comes to devising a messaging strategy for attracting more voters to their side? That remains a work in progress. 

“That’s not how it actually works. We don’t just … come up here and say, ‘Here’s the new strategy moving forward,’ ” Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, told reporters at the Hyatt Regency. “This is part of a process, and we’re still going through that.” 


Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), vice chairwoman of the caucus, echoed that message.

“It’s not like we came here to [do] soul searching,” she said. “It’s part of a process.”

That message may have come as a surprise to some Democrats, whose post-election frustrations brought a rare challenge to the reign of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), forced leaders to expand their ranks to include younger members and triggered the very soul-searching Sánchez said was not the focus in Baltimore. 

“This was a tough election for us,” Crowley acknowledged. “This was … a reversal of fortune.”

But he was quick to note that Democrats also picked up six seats in November and are eying many more in 2018 — a midterm cycle that’s frequently a down-ballot disaster for the party that controls the White House. 

“The idea that we can win the House back, it’s a real notion,” he said. “It’s really there.” 

To reach that goal, the Democrats would need to pick up at least 24 seats, a tall order in the face of district maps that heavily favor Republicans. Complicating the effort, Democrats are straddling a fine line as they seek to craft a message that rides the liberal energy of the Trump protest movement without alienating voters in the purple districts they’ll need to win back the House. 

“We know that we have to do better in re-establishing our trust with voters all across the country, from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of the Democrats’ campaign arm.  

“We have a lot of listening to do.”

In Trump, the Democrats see an opportunity, particularly in light of the fierce protests against his agenda. 

“It is up to us to make sure that the public knows what is happening here … in Washington, and how it affects them in their lives,” Pelosi said. “This president is very dangerous to children and other living things.”  

Part of the Democrats’ challenge is to help maintain the energy of the protest movement through 2018 — a goal they think they’ll meet.

“People, once they are engaged, are going to remain engaged,” Sánchez said. “Granted, two years is a long period of time. But … once people are active, and they’re engaged in the civic process and they’re standing up and voicing their opinions for the America they want to see … it’s very hard to quell that energy.”  

Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), vice chairwoman of recruitment at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said the backlash against the policy wish list of Trump and the Republicans is already making her job easier.  

“That energy is turning into candidates coming forward,” Clark said.

On Thursday, the Democrats got a peek at the initial findings of their election post mortem, presented by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat who’s leading the effort.  

Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.), head of the New Democrats, said an early lesson from the probe is that Democrats can’t expect Trump to be a liability for Republican candidates in every district.

“We clearly ran a ‘tie-them-to-Trump’ strategy in a lot of districts where that really didn’t make a difference,” he said. “That was partly a function of our own biases, and partly a function of some research that was wrong.”

Himes warned of “over-diagnosing” the Democrats’ election struggles, considering that the Democrats picked up seats in both chambers and their presidential candidate won the popular vote by roughly 3 million ballots. But he and other Democratic leaders are also fully aware that their message failed to resonate in 2016 and they need a new approach. 

“If the person receiving the message doesn’t think they did, then the person sending the message has to be more, shall we say, resourceful,” Pelosi said.

Posing an early challenge, the Democrats are grappling with internal disagreements, both tactical and policy-related.  

In the eyes of Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, the campaign fight is all about the economy, and their success in 2018 will hinge on whether they can convince more voters that their agenda is more beneficial to the middle class than Trump’s. 

“He is a committed leader of the trickle-down theory; and we are leaders of the trickle-up theory,” Pelosi said. “So that is our fight. … We have to make the distinctions.”

But not all Democrats agree. Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeHarris wins endorsement of former CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge The Hill's Morning Report — DOJ's planned executions stir new debate Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment MORE (Ohio), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Trump’s economic message during the campaign was so vague as to be nonexistent. His connection, she argued, was something much more visceral, even sinister.

“I think this whole economic message thing is real overblown, and I don’t think it’s accurate. We have been losing blue-collar workers for years — 20-plus years — and our message has always been the right message,” she said. “What Donald Trump did was address them at a very different level — an emotional level, a racial level, a fear level, an anger level." 

“We have to look deeper, because if we only talk about an economic message, we’re not going to win the next election," she added. 

"We have to figure out how to get to the hearts of these people. And that’s what he did. He tapped into the angers and the fears and the anxieties of people that have been bubbling for a very long time.”