Top Democrats on Capitol Hill and across the country have spent the past 18 months contending with voters who want the party’s agenda to move left — toward such policies as “Medicare for all,” tuition-free college, and even, in some cases, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
But that’s not where House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) is headed. Even after a self-described Democratic Socialist ousted a fellow House leader in a primary last month, the No. 2 House Democrat is maintaining an increasingly lonely voice promoting more centrist policies and a message calibrated to moderate and Republican-leaning voters ahead of November’s midterm elections.
He renewed his long-marinating “Make It in America” agenda Monday, delivering a half-hour speech at a downtown Washington outlet of WeWork, a chain of shared work spaces emblematic of the rising “gig economy.” Not mentioned therein were some of the more costly government interventions being promoted on the party’s left — including a universal-health-care program or a guarantee of free college.
Instead, the policy prescriptions on offer ring familiar to anyone acquainted with Democratic campaign platforms of the past decade, including Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016: enhancing and expanding job skills training for U.S. workers, making employment benefits such as health care and retirement savings more portable for workers who switch jobs, and undertaking a robust program of infrastructure investment, in roads and bridges as well as energy and communications networks.
And instead of touting the agenda of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old New Yorker who beat House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley in the June 28 primary, Hoyer instead dwelled on another candidate during the speech and a subsequent interview — Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, who won a March special election in a district President Trump won in 2016 by 20 points.
“I think the most significant election over the last year was Conor Lamb’s,” Hoyer said, pointing to the necessity of winning Trump districts to retake the House majority. “Conor Lamb won with a message that I think is a Democratic message: The tax bill was not for you. They’re trying to take your health care away. . . . Clearly what we found in the polls was, [voters] will listen, they’re not happy.”
Hoyer’s promotion of a more moderate economic agenda came as Democrats seem to be spinning their wheels in selling that agenda to the American public. A campaign message meticulously negotiated among congressional Democrats representing all wings of the party, rolled out last year as “A Better Deal,” was unceremoniously scrapped by House Democratic leaders last week and replaced with the similarly anodyne “For the People.”
While Hoyer’s “Make It in America” effort, dating to 2010, is separate from the party-wide branding effort, he acknowledged Monday that Democrats are having a hard time coming up with anything as memorable and resonant as “Make America Great Again.”
“We need to have a brand as Trump had,” Hoyer said. “And I think why that resonated was, so many people believed that they weren’t doing so well, and if America were great they would have been doing well. And therefore you know this guy is new — I’ll take a shot at him.”
Now, “I think there’s some buyer’s remorse,” he said. “We need to convince them that not only do we have a program . . . [but] when we take over our first focus is going to be your jobs, your economic well-being, you’ll ‘make it in America.’ Because we’re for the people. We’re for you.”
The bigger issue that Hoyer and other Democrats have to contend with is the strong U.S. economy — or at least the perception of a strong U.S. economy, which stands to be the cornerstone of the Republican midterm campaign. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and other top GOP leaders are promoting a message of “Better Off Now” — highlighting record-low unemployment, rising wages and an uptick in economic growth, something Republicans say is rooted in their moves to cut taxes and slash federal regulations.
Asked about how Democrats expect to rebut that narrative, Hoyer again pointed to Lamb’s campaign — where Republican strategists expected that a campaign touting the GOP tax cut would be enough to keep the party in the Pennsylvania seat, only to see Lamb squeak out a victory running against the GOP on health care, pensions and other bread-and-butter issues.
“The ‘Better Deal’ did not seem to resonate as well,” he said. “But I think intuitively what Conor Lamb found — both on taxes and on health care — people really do believe Democrats are more likely to be for people like me. And that’s what ‘For the People’ is trying to capture. . . . There are a lot of people saying, ‘Well, yeah, I think the economy is getting better, but, you know, my economy’s not getting better, personally.’ So I think there’s a lot of angst about, am I going to succeed in the next five years? Is my kid going to be able to succeed? And that’s what this better future, ‘Better Deal,’ ‘For the People’ deal is.”