House Democrats are heading to Baltimore on Wednesday morning for three days of soul-searching and strategizing after a winless month on the Hill.
The annual issues conference, House Democrats’ first with control of neither Congress nor the White House since 2006, is more introspective and less star-studded than previous years. On Wednesday, Democrats will hear from author Bryan Stevenson; on Thursday, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and on Friday they’ll close the conference with Chelsea Handler, whose Netflix interview series “Chelsea” has frequently focused on politics.
In between, they’ll sit for panels and strategy sessions about how to oppose President Trump with an agenda of their own.
“We’ve got to have some honest conversations,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who rang warning bells about how her party was on track to lose blue states in the Midwest.
“We’ll fight Trump where we gotta fight him, press back where we gotta press back, but then we gotta keep pivoting to what our vision for the country is,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who mounted a failed bid against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after the 2016 defeat. “I think people are gonna get whiplash with Trump.”
This week’s forum will be the 15th under Pelosi and the second after an election in which the party gained seats but fell short of taking back the House. In 2012, Democrats increased their numbers by eight, but were hindered by a map that gerrymandered most of the Midwest, as well as North Carolina and Virginia, in favor of Republicans. In 2016, they gained six seats, putting them about where they were after the party’s landslide 2010 defeat.
On Thursday members will hear preliminary findings of a “red team”-style review of the party’s House campaign arm following underwhelming 2016 election results. House leaders, including Pelosi, predicted double-digit gains and raised the possibility that Democrats could win the 30 seats they needed to reclaim the majority. Instead, their half-dozen wins were largely because of court-ordered redistricting.
“It’s just an honest assessment of what we do well, and what we need to work on, simple as that,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who is leading the review and declined to discuss the findings in detail.
Two people familiar with the preliminary report but not authorized to comment on it expect the review to be critical of some Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee practices, including some long-standing relationships with outside consultants. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the DCCC’s chairman, is scheduled to follow that presentation with an outline of the committee’s plans for 2018, including encouraging signs in candidate recruiting.
“They’re coming out of the woodwork,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), the committee’s recruiting chairman, said Tuesday. One prized target who had fended off Democratic recruiters during the 2016 election cycle, he said, called him days after the election and said, in his words, that “wild horses couldn’t drag me away” from a 2018 run.
But the hard memory of Trump’s win — which few Democrats saw coming — has lasted, and influenced how Democrats are thinking about how to oppose a president who polls poorly across the country but stronger in swing seats.
“He tweets,” said Rep. Cedric L Richmond (D-La.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Others tweet back at him. I don’t think there are rules of engagement like there used to be. People need to know we’re hearing them, and that we’re working on the issues that are important to them, not the issues that are polling well.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who called Trump “masterful at throwing a hundred balls in a hundred directions,” said he’d like to see Democrats concentrate on defending Obama-era milestones such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, urging independent investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia, crafting a forward-looking economic message and holding Trump responsible for his campaign promises.
“I think this stuff adds up,” said Swalwell, who chairs a group of younger Democratic lawmakers called the Future Forum. “He may have promised 1,200 Carrier jobs and delivered 800; he may have promised 4 percent GDP [growth] and it’s around 2 percent. I think just kind of going at those individually may not resonate as much with folks, but … those broken promises will add up, and I think that may be the undoing.”
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a freshman who represents much of Prince George’s County, said that his class was looking for buy-in on ideas they could take back home, like workforce training.
“Probably the most important thing is coming out with a proactive, positive agenda,” Brown said. “My hope is that we come out of it with a clear vision and an agenda, and a set of action items.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (R-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he would be part of a conference panel about foreign policy in the Trump era alongside former Obama administration foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes and journalist Peter Bergen.
“We’ll talk about the danger of a lot of President Trump’s policies vis-à-vis Russia,” Schiff said. “I think the challenge is that every day there’s an action, an executive order, a tweet, that is at odds with our national security interests. You saw that with Trump expressing some kind of moral equivalency between Russia and the United States — it was just the most enormous gift to Russian propaganda.”
A less ominous topic would be the fast-growing wave of resistance to the Trump administration, as seen at congressional town halls, congressional offices, and airports since Trump was sworn in. In Baltimore, as at other Democratic forums since Jan. 20, the party would consider what the new energy of its base meant — and what it could do to keep in sync.
“It’s great, it’s exhilarating, but I realized just now that the last three weekends, I’ve spoken at rallies of 10,000 people or more,” Dingell said. “And none of them had been organized the week before.”
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