The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At messaging retreat, Democrats discuss how to connect with voters

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) listens as President Biden delivers remarks at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia on March 11. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA — At a messaging retreat this week, House Democratic members were coached on how to better connect with voters.

A sitcom showrunner and a best-selling fiction writer encouraged them to tell stories rather than give voters the usual laundry list of reasons Democrats should remain in the majority. Three marketing executives, including one from Pepsi, urged them to craft their messages like sharp advertisements. And leaders echoed a new slogan unveiled by the national party: They can deliver.

These buzzy pitches landed on an often-exhausted audience — and a smaller one than anticipated as many members who face difficult midterm elections this fall skipped the two-day gathering to campaign at home, relaying their own messages of success rather than waiting for a directive by the caucus campaign arm.

The yearly conference, which was in-person for the first time since the pandemic began two years ago, started later than expected because of last-minute drama in Washington that left members upset at leadership’s decision-making. To many members, it felt like it would take more than a catchy slogan to overcome the miscommunication within their own party, incessant attacks from Republicans and the worries of their constituents that range from a worsening war in Ukraine to rising costs inflamed by inflation.

“There’s a lot that we don’t control as much as we would like to believe we do. What we do control is whether we have good ideas, and we get them done, and we tell people about them, and we remind them that the other side doesn’t,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who also chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The long-held tensions that exist among the ranks of a diversifying Democratic Party have often defined House Democrats this term, testing leadership’s ability to smoothly pass legislation through the caucus’s historically narrow majority, which has possibly overshadowed the achievements they had been able to compromise on over the past year.

Many Americans have largely forgotten Democrats’ solution to combat the pandemic by injecting roughly $2 trillion into the economy a year ago. Biden’s bipartisan law that invests another $700 billion to reinvigorate America’s infrastructure was marred by ideological infighting and was blemished by the failure to pass the social spending plank of his agenda that remains stalled.

And many members boarded Philadelphia-bound buses just before midnight Wednesday, worried the bicameral and bipartisan $1.5 trillion government funding package filled with billions allotted to their own communities could be upstaged by what many considered a preventable argument had leadership communicated what was in the legislation before hastily trying to hold a vote.

Democratic leaders released the sprawling 2,000-page legislation Wednesday morning, at which point members learned that Biden’s $15 billion ask to combat the coronavirus pandemic would be offset by redirecting from pre-allotted funds to 30 states. To fund the government in time and fend off speculation that their retreat would be canceled, leadership pulled the coronavirus aid out, which they hoped to avoid since the stand-alone bill will not pass in the Senate.

“I would just say that had we had a conversation about it, I think, it would have been very clear that this was probably not a strategy that would work and that we would need to find other options,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose state was affected by the decision.

The moment was emblematic of a growing frustration among Democratic members who saw the seemingly preventable debacle as another example of leadership’s tendency not to consult the rank-and-file on strategy like this, according to two members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations they had with colleagues Wednesday.

While the sentiments lingered into Thursday morning, Democrats had already learned keeping the focus on their divisions would probably hinder their pathway of delivering legislation.

“Oftentimes when you’re making sausage, it starts out pretty rough. But you have to have people who will go in and work with their membership, but I want to dispel that it affected our conference today,” Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) said. “Did things happen that if we could do it over it would probably happen the same way? Yes. But the resolve is what matters.”

The “renewal of resolve” became the slogan that leaders incidentally decided would define the retreat. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) noted Friday that Democrats’ resolve was strengthened after hearing Maloney detail their hefty fundraising war chest and project that redistricting won’t hurt the party’s chances in as many states as they had worried. But success in the midterms, many Democrats said, would require reflection on how best to talk with voters.

“We need to address the most urgent needs of the American people. They need to know we’re doing it, and we need to be fighting like hell every day for the things that matter in people’s lives. And we need to talk like real people,” Maloney told reporters after noting that Democrats often sound more “preachy” than “empathetic.”

Democrats embrace politically risky strategy on rising gas prices

The caucus’s chairman, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), echoed that sentiment in his “elevator pitch” to voters on the difference between Democrats and Republicans: “We care about everyday Americans. They don’t. We make life better for everyday Americans. They don’t. We’re getting stuff done. They are not.”

But with Democrats in control, members have noted that Republicans still have the upper hand in their attacks, especially since voters see and feel the effects of rising costs at the gas pump and elsewhere. Maloney noted that skyrocketing oil prices have become “a real problem” that Democrats would address “with solutions,” though he did not elaborate on specifics.

In the interim, Democrats have taken a page from Biden to counter the effects of a foreign war on the United States, stressing that a gas hike is a direct result from Russian President Vladimir Putin and a small price to pay in comparison to the sacrifices being made by Ukrainians to defend democracy.

While Biden’s stalled Build Back Better legislation has come to symbolize Democratic infighting and failed goals, members hope to still find compromise to deliver on a number of promises that were packed into the legislative package that passed the House last year, like child care, housing, climate and other social provisions.

Leaders of the Progressive, Black and Hispanic caucuses all respectively announced they would make executive order recommendations to Biden that he could enact unilaterally. It’s an acknowledgment by Congress, but primarily the White House, that little can be done on a bipartisan basis.

But in the interim, members have begun to realize they should repeatedly sell the details of multiple bipartisan bills that are on their pathway to becoming law. Members, like Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), stressed that the government funding package included a myriad community funding projects that touched on planks of the Build Back Better agenda like providing money for housing, clean water and more.

Biden still touts Build Back Better, but what does that mean?

“I think we’re an incredibly effective Congress and a very effective caucus because we were able to show that as issues come up, we could resolve those issues, and that we could get that a budget passed that reflects our priorities,” Leger Fernandez said. “We didn’t get everything we wanted. I didn’t get everything I wanted for New Mexico, but boy, if you go down that list of what we were able to do, it is significant.”

The retreat concluded with remarks from President Biden. Pelosi introduced him by telling her members to listen closely and saying: “Our message will be the message of the president of the United States.”

Biden then modeled to members how to use storytelling. He told of growing up in Scranton, Penn., in a working-class family where legislative achievements were rarely discussed around the kitchen table because those conversations focused on making ends meet.

“You tell them what the American Recovery was, they look at you like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Understandably so,” Biden said, then listing accomplishments he hoped they would share with voters to remind them to “keep the faith.”

“I thought we had to unify the country because ultimately we are a democracy and, for it to work, there has to be consensus. For a consensus, you’ve got to get a majority. We’ve not been able to do that for a lot of the important things. That’s why we have to continue to maintain our majority,” Biden said. “If we lose the House and Senate, the only thing I’ll have then is a veto pen.”