Democrats launch economic agenda ahead of 2018 campaign

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate will unveil a broad economic agenda Monday, hoping to unite the disparate wings of their caucuses and win back working-class voters who fled the party last year.

The party’s messaging strategy is the culmination of months of internal meetings and polling after a disappointing 2016 election that left Democrats reeling and many complaining they had no message to offer the public other than being against President Donald Trump.

“The number one thing that we did wrong is we didn’t tell people what we stood for,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

To fill that void, Democrats are adding pitches aimed at battling corporate overreach to an economic platform that already includes a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan and paid family leave. Party leaders are also proposing a new independent agency to oversee prescription drug prices similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched by Sen. Elizabeth Warren as well as an independent “competition advocate” that would police corporate mergers.

"We have these huge companies buying up other big companies,” Schumer said. “It hurts workers and it hurts prices.”

Democrats are launching the agenda under the slogan “A Better Deal,” which POLITICO reported earlier this month. It’s designed as a nod to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which helped usher in the modern-day Democratic Party, and also as a dig at Trump, who bills himself as the world’s greatest deal-maker.

Midterm election agendas don’t necessarily have to sear themselves into voters’ minds to be successful. The GOP’s 1994 "Contract With America" still lingers in the popular lexicon, while Democrats’ 2006 "New Direction for America" faded quickly. But both coincided with the minority party seizing the House and Senate.

Democrats know that if they can’t sell the public on the substance of the program, the label won’t matter.

"I’m not sure that the name is what is going to ultimately win votes," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who helped develop the package of proposals, said in an interview.

Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and other top Democrats, including Warren, a Massachusetts liberal, and Rep. Cheri Bustos, who represents a Trump-won district in Illinois, will roll out their new agenda in Berryville, Va.

Democrats chose the predominantly white, northern Virginia area represented by Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock because it’s exactly the kind of district they need to win to take back Congress next year.

Democrats campaigned heavily in Comstock’s district and others like it last year with hopes that a Trump backlash would deliver them the Senate majority and a double digit gain in the House. They came up nearly empty-handed as Trump prevailed: Republicans held onto both the Senate and the House, with Democrats only picking up six seats in the lower chamber.

Democrats have since waged a tug-of-war between an invigorated liberal base and a shrinking wing of centrists over the party’s identity.

But Schumer said Democrats’ new agenda, which members will field test during next month’s recess, weaves together ideas from both sides of the party while avoiding third-rail topics like single-payer health care, a rallying cry for the left. Still, he told ABC that single-payer is one of many health care ideas "on the table" down the road.

The first portions of the “Better Deal” agenda, which is set to grow as the midterms near, call for a new tax credit designed to spur hiring and new standards designed to give antitrust regulators a firmer hand in ensuring that corporations commit to consumer-friendly changes before being allowed to merge. Democrats also want Medicare to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices, a Trump campaign promise that he flirted with pursuing with Democrats but has since gone nowhere.

Schumer acknowledged that Democrats’ message echoes Trump’s populist rhetoric, but vowed that Democrats would do what the president has so far failed to do, despite working with a Republican-controlled Congress: deliver on campaign promises.

“We are going to fill that gap in a way that’s really going to resonate with the American people,” Schumer said.

Party leaders know they have their work cut out for them. Even as polls show Democrats ahead on the generic congressional ballot, they currently fail to outpace the GOP in enthusiasm among likely voters next year.

"As Democrats, we love messaging by demographic group. We love cultural issues. We don’t like repeating the same economic message over and over again," Murphy said. "The real work is not putting this agenda together. The real work is making sure Democrats are disciplined in talking about it to every group that they go to."

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