Democratic leaders are zeroing in on a new mantra for their long-promised economic agenda: the “Better Deal.”
The re-branding attempt comes as Democrats acknowledge that simply running against President Donald Trump wasn’t a winning strategy in 2016 and probably won’t work in 2018 either. The slogan, which is still being polled in battleground House districts, aims to convince voters that Democrats have more to offer than the GOP and the self-proclaimed deal-maker in the White House.
But even as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi prepare a jobs package centered on infrastructure, trade and the minimum wage, some of their most vulnerable members are already making other plans.
Several moderate Democrats facing reelection next year told POLITICO that no matter what leadership does, they’re preparing to craft their own pitch to voters. The ideological and political divides that gripped the party during the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary wars are far from healed, and leadership may not find universal support for the left-leaning platform, particularly from those trying to defend seats in Trump-friendly states.
“Message has always been a challenge for Democrats, because it tends to get too convoluted and not very simple,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said in a recent interview.
“We ought to have a message already,” added Tester, a former chief of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm up who is up for reelection in 2018. “I’m not sure we have a cohesive message. But we’ve certainly got one for Montana.”
Freshman Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who beat a progressive challenger to win his Orange County seat that includes Disneyland, also declared his independence from leadership: “If the left and the right are going to have a certain message, I’m going to have my own message,” Correa said.
He isn’t alone.
Several lawmakers interviewed by POLITICO said the overarching lesson they learned from the 2016 election is not that Democrats need a more cohesive economic message. Instead, they say they need to be able to run a strong campaign in spite of the national Democratic platform.
That’s not to say they won’t accept a new party plank if it materializes and fits their districts. But they’re not counting on it either.
“It would be helpful if there was a good national message, but the Blue Dogs do not count on that or rely on that,” said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), chairwoman of the moderate Blue Dog super PAC. “If you have the right candidate, who’s a good fit for his or her district, that is what matters the most.”
Senate Democrats already have proposed an infrastructure plan which calls for $1 trillion in direct federal spending rather than the White House’s approach of leaning heavily on private developers.
Schumer and Pelosi are also aligned on legislation that would more than double the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which Pelosi has vowed to pass within 100 hours if Democrats take back the House next year.
Leadership is staying tight-lipped on their coming trade proposal, but China has long been a central focus of their agenda. Schumer has repeatedly teed off on Trump for going back on a campaign promise to declare Beijing a currency manipulator, and Chinese trade practices remain a potent issue in the Midwest, where several vulnerable Democratic senators are up for reelection next year.
"Democrats will try to pass it legislatively for a year and campaign on it in 2018," Schumer told ABC last month of the coming economic agenda. "It’s what we were missing in 2016 and in the past."
Schumer has met with nearly all of his 48-member caucus to discuss the agenda, according to a Democratic aide, with a goal of consulting the entire group before the package is released. Some proposals may not attract everyone from both the moderate and liberal wings of the party, the aide said, but Schumer wants a critical mass of the caucus to be on board.
Among the 17 Democratic senators who have yet to sign onto the $15 minimum wage bill championed by Sanders is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents next year and a member of Schumer’s leadership team.
“If they think $15 works in every state, it doesn’t,” Manchin said in an interview. “That’s a challenge. But saying you can leave it to $7.25, that’s just ridiculous.”
Like other moderates, Manchin said he would wage a reelection battle on his own economic agenda, separating his identity from that of his party.
“I don’t think they’re electing me because I have a D or have an R by my name,” Manchin added. “It’s always been, ‘Joe Manchin did this. He’s fighting for West Virginia.’”
Democrats are also keenly aware, as Schumer suggested last month, of their failure to sell an affirmative economic agenda during a 2016 campaign that they dedicated to demonizing Trump.
“One of our concerns coming out of 2016 was it appeared that the message was largely ‘I’m not him,’” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said of Democrats’ counterpunch to Trump. “That’s not an aspirational message. You need to give people a reason to vote.”
The party also fell short last month in a fiercely competitive Georgia special election despite breaking all-time House fundraising records. Some progressive critics note that Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to GOP Rep. Karen Handel without offering many specific economic proposals.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who’s building on his own long-running populist brand for his re-election battle next year, said that the party always has to do more to push a “sharper economic message” focused on helping the working class.
“We never talk about it enough,” Brown said in a brief interview, but “I don’t say that’s the reason we lost the [Georgia] election.”
Following the 2016 election, Pelosi answered the rank-and-file’s demand for more leadership opportunities by expanding House Democrats’ messaging arm to include three co-chairmen and give the group more responsibilities.
Since then, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee leaders have held countless meetings and briefings with all the wings of their caucus and are putting the final details on messaging they say can be tailored to work in all 194 Democratic districts across the country and at least two dozen others that Democrats are hoping to snag to take back the majority.
“Democrats have a tendency to talk in paragraphs, not headlines,” said DPCC co-chair Cheri Bustos of Illinois, one of 12 Democrats sitting in Trump-won districts. “We’re gonna get this right.”
For now, lawmakers and aides shaping the message in both the House and Senate are keeping details close, leaving some lawmakers wary of the push.
Some House Democrats, for their part, say they haven’t fully bought into the “Better Deal” slogan, which hearkens back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and will only be embraced if it’s the consensus of the caucus. Others also questioned the idea of a big messaging rollout, saying that might be too “inside the Beltway” and suggesting members take ideas back to their districts for a trial run in the August recess.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, remain riveted by the GOP’s internal jockeying on the Obamacare repeal, maintaining unified opposition in the hopes of torpedoing Republican efforts and moving on to a bipartisan health care fix. That cause has dominated their attention and united liberals and red-state Democrats.
“It won’t be enough over time to simply block — we’re going to have to focus on an agenda moving forward,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who is likely to face a stiff GOP challenge next year in a state Trump won. “I think on health care, though, there’s really no choice but to oppose.”
And while debate over the party’s future — and whether to veer left — has been a constant, clarity has been hard to come by. In the four special elections this year in solid GOP territory, some Democratic candidates embraced Bernie-nomics while others did not, but all of them lost.
Still, Democrats are hopeful that the party can craft a winning message and unite around it.
“What people really talk about is can they pay their mortgage? Do they have health care for their family? Can they send their kids to college? Can they take a family vacation?” Pocan said. “I don’t care if you’re a Blue Dog or a Progressive Caucus member, we all hear that in our districts.”