House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived at her weekly news conference determined to talk about saving the Affordable Care Act. She was flanked by 15 uniformed nurses and spoke from a lectern with a sign reading “#ProtectOurCare.”
But after just one question on her chosen topic, reporters moved on to other subjects: President Trump’s allegations of voter fraud, Trump’s plans for a new border wall, Trump’s desire to ban refugees from Muslim countries and Trump’s hiring freeze.
Pelosi’s responses grabbed headlines. Her warning about repealing Obamacare did not.
The scene, which played out Wednesday in front of eight television cameras, underscores the stark challenge Democrats face in getting their message out in the early days of an administration that is generating rapid-fire headlines — sometimes shifting the story line several times a day.
Since taking office just a week ago, the new Republican president has issued a slew of attention-grabbing executive actions, on topics as far flung as pipeline construction and global abortion policy, caused uproars with comments on Twitter that no one saw coming and dominated the conversation with off-the-cuff musings about crowd sizes and voter fraud.
With a Supreme Court pick coming next week, growing discord with Mexico and a renewed debate about torture, there’s no sign of things settling down anytime soon.
The dynamic makes it difficult for Democrats to break through the noise with sustained pushback on any one of these issues, let alone mount a campaign around some of their own priorities — and expect the media to pay attention.
Aides say Trump’s primary aim has been to show that he is a “man of action,” as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway put it in a tweet this week. But others also see a deliberate strategy meant to keep Trump’s detractors unsettled — not unlike what he did during the presidential campaign.
“It’s very much a part of how he does business,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “He’s not going to give people a chance to catch their breath before he moves on. It’s part of how he operates. He likes to keep political opponents back on their heels.”
During the campaign congressional Republicans often balked at being asked to respond to the latest controversy stirred by Trump, but now some in the GOP are noting the benefits of this style when it comes to drowning out the opposition.
“You have so much going on at once, it’s hard to find one thing to be critical of,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
On a day this week when Trump was particularly prolific, Jared Leopold, the communications director for the Democratic Governors' Association, acknowledged a dilemma.
“I can’t even decide which executive order to speak out on today,” he said.
He wound up issuing a lengthy news release about the steadfast opposition of Democratic governors to Trump’s plan to turn Medicaid into a block-grant program, calling it “a scheme that would throw state budgets into disarray and threaten health care benefits for millions.”
Much of the media had already moved on to other things, Leopold acknowledged, but he said the decision reflected a desire to try to stay focused on issues with the most impact on real people.
One of the new challenges facing Democrats is finding the discipline to disregard many of the less weighty things the president says, Leopold and others suggested.
“I think the flurry of activity its having its desired effect,” said Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, chairman of the DGA. “I worry that it is a long-term subterfuge to make sure people aren’t paying attention to the real issues.”
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, argued it would be a mistake for Democrats to engage Trump on his terms.
“While Trump floods the zone, we need to have a consistent, thematic message,” he said. “Our side will be at its weakest if we’re offering ad hoc responses to issue after issue.”
The core of the opposition message, Green said, should be that Trump is “betraying even his own voters by giving away the farm to billionaires and Wall Street at the expense of working families.”
That can be a challenge, however, for groups seeking to fight Trump on individual issues.
Following an executive order this week seeking to revive the Dakota pipeline, Our Revolution, an advocacy group that grew out of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), took up the flag opposing the project.
Native American groups have protested the pipeline, which would carry oil from the booming shale reserves in North Dakota to refineries and pipeline networks in Illinois. Opponents say it would imperil their water supplies and disturb sacred burial and archaeological sites.
Jeff Weaver, president of Our Revolution, acknowledged difficulty in getting the mainstream media to pay attention to the group’s arguments.
“Not only do you have to get your views out there, you have to break through the coverage of these other outlandish things,” said Weaver, who served as Sanders’s campaign manager. “The Dakota Pipeline is a big issue, but no one’s talking about the Dakota Pipeline just a couple of days later. That’s the problem. The media wants to chase the newest shiny object.”
He credited the Trump White House for understanding how that works.
“I do think the White House is artful in throwing up smokescreens to protect itself from the bad things it’s doing,” Weaver said.
Several senior Democrats in Congress expressed confidence that over time, Trump, who already has low approval ratings, will suffer from his scattershot focus.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), said he thinks Democrats are already connecting with the public on the need to protect the Affordable Care Act, for example.
“The Affordable Care Act has energized people,” Hoyer said. “I think we’re doing well so far. As time goes by and the American public has more time to focus on the machine-gun issuance of policies without thought, vetting or consideration, I think we’re going to be even more successful.”
Hoyer was aboard a plane about to depart for Utah, where he was set to visit the Sundance Film Festival to attend Democratic fundraisers “and see some movies.” At the airport, he said two or three people had stopped him and said, “We want to get involved, you stay in there we need to fight this administration from doing things he proposes to do.”
Drew Hammill, the longtime spokesman for Pelosi, said Democrats “need to be out there beating the drum about what’s good about the Affordable Care Act.”
“You’re not going to poke through every single day, but we consistently do,” he said.
“That lack of message discipline is not going to be good for this White House,” Hammill added. “Straying from topic to topic based on whatever verbal pretzel you’ve gotten yourself into is not the way to get things done at the end of the day. These executive orders are largely message, there’s not much reality to them. At the end of the day, [Trump will] have to build public support to get them through Congress. That requires message discipline.”
In the short term, however, what broke through at Pelosi’s weekly news conference were her reactions to Trump. She called him “insecure” for suggesting that millions of fraudulent ballots had been cast. She said that freezing federal employees hiring was an “assault” on the public sector and that the new administration seemed eager to establish a “fact-free zone.”
Arguably the biggest messaging success for Democrats of the past week was a news conference staged by Senate Democrats to detail a plan they crafted in response to one of Trump’s signature campaign promises: investing in the country’s infrastructure.
Their $1 trillion plan to revamp the nation’s airports, bridges, roads and seaports drew widespread media coverage.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who leads her caucus’s policy and messaging operation, said there have been other successes. She cited the slowed-down consideration of some Trump Cabinet nominees after Democrats spoke out “so that the American people have more time to engage.” It remains unclear if any of the nominees Democrats have targeted will actually be derailed.
Stabenow said Democrats plan to keep speaking out to their constituents, particularly to those feeling downtrodden by Republican control of the White House and Congress.
“We’re going to let them know that this democracy is about everybody in this country and it’s not owned by a privileged few,” she said. “What I’m hearing when I go through the airport is, ‘Thank you. Thank you for engaging.’”