Dems face pressure to focus on economy, not Trump

Democratic leaders in Congress are coming under criticism from liberals who fear the party is spending too much time battling President Trump and not enough building an economic agenda.

They worry that Democratic leaders are falling into the same trap as Hillary Clinton in 2016, when her relentless attacks on Trump eclipsed her own plans for the country.


Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have unveiled a variety of ambitious proposals, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and creating a national system of paid family and sick leave.

But the Democrats’ “Better Deal” agenda has been overshadowed by regular battles with Trump over the Russia investigation, controversial nominees, immigration, guns, efforts to undermine ObamaCare and the president’s $1.5 trillion tax cut.

“You can’t win just by saying how awful Trump is,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group. “We need a positive economic agenda and it’s got to be bigger and bolder than just the conventional nostrums of the past.” 

Some Democrats in Congress agree.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is warning his colleagues not to settle for an agenda that merely “sand[s] down the rough edges of the status quo” and goes soft on economic injustice “in the name of moving cautiously.”

“[That] is not ‘liberalism,’ ” he wrote recently in a Washington Post op-ed. ”It’s conservatism that doesn’t want to admit what it is.”

Campaign for America’s Future has pushed Democratic leaders to take a bolder approach by organizing a pledge to “fight for good jobs, sustainable prosperity and economic justice,” which has the support of nearly 80 prominent liberals, including Robert Reich, who served as secretary of Labor under former President Clinton.

Many of these activist leaders favor the bold approach of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who gave Clinton a tougher-than-expected race for the Democratic nomination two years ago.

Sanders during the campaign endorsed a “Medicare for all” single-payer health plan and the opportunity to attend four-year public colleges without paying tuition.

His platform was so popular that Hillary Clinton later supported tuition-free college education for families making $125,000 a year or less. 

Democratic leaders acknowledged after the 2016 presidential election that they would have to build a new economic brand for the party.

Exit polls showed that more voters trusted Trump over Clinton on the economy even though they had misgivings about his fitness for office.

Hoping to set a new tone, Democratic leaders launched their “Better Deal” agenda in rural Virginia last summer by unveiling a 12-page prescription for easing middle-class economic pains — without once mentioning Trump.

Their economic messaging strategy has evolved over that past 15 months, focusing at various times on job creation, workforce training and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

Last week, the Democrats released the latest chapter of that agenda, proposing steep funding hikes to promote education, science research and infrastructure projects.

But liberal activists have been disappointed by what they see as a timid approach to pushing a new economic vision.

“The 80 known signers of the pledge would say that it needs to be much more specific and concrete about a different kind of economy,” Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America and a pledge signatory, said of the Democratic leadership’s midterm election agenda.

He said the Democratic agenda needs to make “specific commitments” instead of speaking in “generalities.”

“It’s one thing to say in generalities we believe climate change is a real problem. It’s another thing to say we’re going to commit to renewable energy with a $1 trillion infrastructure program and to eliminate new fossil fuel programs,” he said.

“It’s one thing to say we should lower pharmaceutical prices — Donald Trump will say that — it’s another thing to say we’re going to take on the pharmaceutical companies and we’re going to pay the same prices that people in other countries pay,” he added. “It’s about taking on corporate America where they need to be taken on.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide said the midterm election agenda was put together with input from an array of liberal experts and activists.

“Democrats worked with a broad coalition of progressive allies to form a sharp-edged economic message,” the aide said.  

Pelosi last week touted “A Better Deal” as a long-awaited chance for congressional lawmakers to set the party’s vision.

“It was all presidential from ’08 to ’16. Now it’s our turn to make the distinction, and it’s a very clear one,” she said.

The “Better Deal” calls on the government to “stop outrageous prescription drug price increases,” negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare and require drugmakers to release data justifying significant price increases.

But centrist Democrats argue these liberal critics don’t have a realistic sense for how these expensive proposals play in more conservative areas of the country.

“We have to get out of our deep-blue echo chamber. Single-payer was on the ballot in Colorado in 2016 and lost every single county,” said Jim Kessler, the senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

“When people learn the details of things, they become skeptical,” he added. “Their ideas are not as popular as they make them out to be. A lot of these ideas call for huge government takeover of things where people are uncomfortable giving government so much more power.”

The leadership effort to steer clear of Trump has been complicated by a small contingent of liberal House Democrats pushing for impeachment. Behind Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), the lawmakers have forced two floor votes on the impeachment question since December, the second of which won the support of 66 Democrats — more than a third of the Caucus — in January. 

Trump and the Republicans have pounced, using the threat of impeachment as a campaign tool to energize conservative voters. And Pelosi last week warned that impeachment is “a gift to the Republicans,” one that could hurt the Democrats’ chances of flipping seats in purple swing districts in November. 

“I don’t think we should be talking about impeachment,” Pelosi said. “We want to talk about what they’re doing to undermine working families in our country and what we are doing to increase their payrolls and lower their costs.”

Tags Al Green Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Donald Trump economy Hillary Clinton Immigration Nancy Pelosi ObamaCare

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