President Obama’s popularity is on the rebound, and the Democrats’ race to replace him seems orderly and sane compared with the chaotic contest already dividing the GOP. Even in the minority, Senate Democrats still have enough leverage to slow, stall or kill Republican bills, and they are hopeful about retaking control in 2016.
And then there are the House Democrats.
With their ranks severely depleted and with no control over the chamber’s agenda, they are the most tangible symbols of the party’s recent electoral defeats. And the wreckage has made discussions about the future difficult.
But it is that very future, and how to shape it, that will be the subject of closed-door meetings in Philadelphia on Thursday and Friday as House Democrats try to figure out how to rehabilitate themselves with voters.
Some worry that the party could lose even more seats in 2016 under House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who maintains a firm grip on the caucus and is its top fundraiser.
On Wednesday night as the meetings began, Pelosi said Democrats are eager to draw contrasts with Republicans in 2016.
“It’s going to be a presidential year, so we have to put on the table what we see as the big contrast in the House of Representatives,” she said. “The presidential candidate will go forward with whatever agenda she has. Or he.”
A yawning gap has opened up in the 188-member caucus between an aging cast of urban liberals and their younger colleagues who come from the few districts Democrats control outside major cities.
Beyond those generational and demographic tensions, Democrats continue to debate the best ways to attract a winning coalition in 2016.
“Our message cannot be a bunch of Democrats running around saying we have no message. That’s not a good message,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), the caucus’s newly anointed message man. “It’s time to get in a room and do a robust analysis of what message works and just start messaging it.”
Others, including Rep. Peter Welch (Vt.), disagreed: “Political hand-to-hand combat isn’t getting us anywhere,” he said. “When you don’t have credibility and nobody’s listening, why do you spend time crafting a message that’s essentially us talking to ourselves?”
Many in the caucus were buoyed by President Obama’s expansive State of the Union address last week and are heartened to hear him — and several Republicans vying for the White House — discussing concerns about income inequality, an issue they’ve worried about for several years.
“We’re in the deepest minority hole in a generation. So you would expect us to be down in the mouth and moping. We are not. We’re thoroughly optimistic,” said Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), who is in his second term.
None of the anxiety seems to be affecting Pelosi’s hold on the reins. Many of those frustrated Democrats acknowledge that she remains a powerful leader who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for party colleagues through the years and who this year has elevated several mid-level members into higher committee positions. But several remain unconvinced.
“Nancy Pelosi needs to go to Philadelphia this week and give Democrats a clear path to picking up seats,” one frustrated Democrat said. “If it’s anything short of that, then she failed for the weekend.”
Another Democrat was more direct: “We’ve lost a couple of elections in a row. If we were a private company and kept losing profits, the first thing they’d do is look at the CEO,” he said.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said Pelosi remains “unmatched by anyone that I’ve seen in my lifetime in terms of leading a political caucus.” He said there is widespread agreement that “getting back in the majority should be number one on our agenda.”
“We’ve got to compare Day One of the Obama administration with today,” he added. “And when you make that comparison, it’s unquestionable that the country is moving in the right direction. But how do we do that?”
One idea on the table is for the party to finally embrace Obama’s economic achievements while continuing to attack Republicans for focusing on issues such as immigration and abortion.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a third-term lawmaker , thinks Democrats missed an easy opportunity to cast the Affordable Care Act as a job creator during the midterm campaign. While many of her party colleagues distanced themselves from the unpopular law, Bass said that with millions of Americans now receiving health care, the law means that “clearly you’re going to have to create new jobs.”
“We shouldn’t distance ourselves from the president. We’ve learned from that mistake, haven’t we?” she said.
But as the president tries to cement his legacy, some distance between him and Democratic lawmakers seems inevitable, most immediately on trade.
Republican leaders are preparing legislation that would grant Obama broad authority to finalize one of the largest free-trade pacts in the nation’s history. But House Democrats and their biggest allies — organized labor and environmentalists — oppose such trade pacts and worry that Congress could give the administration too much power to negotiate details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement between the United States and 11 other countries.
Obama is likely to face questions on the trade pact when he speaks at the retreat on Thursday night. Vice President Biden will close the meetings Friday, according to copies of the agenda obtained by The Washington Post.
There also will be breakout sessions Thursday focused on key policy concerns for Democrats — gun violence, seniors, education, government and campaign reform, and the economy. Invited experts include Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor; political strategist Jack Trout; and Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, a liberal think tank. Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam will serve as a lunchtime speaker on Thursday.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a leading voice on budget matters, will lead a strategy session on preparing for the release of a GOP-written budget plan. And Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, plans to share his early plans for the 2016 elections.
Luján is well-liked in the caucus but untested on the national political stage. As lead campaign strategist, he’ll have the task of devising a plan to win at least 30 seats to take back the majority — something many consider impossible.
“Getting the 30 they need will be a very steep climb,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “If the president’s numbers continue to climb and people feel good about the economy, that’ll be good for Democrats, but they’ll still have to convince voters to throw out Republicans. A good economy usually benefits all incumbents, no matter their party.”
Democrats think that increased turnout among Democratic and independent voters in the presidential election will help them win back swing districts that have changed parties in recent years.
Top targets for Democrats include Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who holds a Miami-area seat; Will Hurd (R-Tex.), who represents a sprawling district along the U.S.-Mexico border; Bob Dold (R-Ill.), from suburban Chicago; Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), who won in 2010, lost in 2012 and just reclaimed his seat; first-termers Rod Blum (R-Iowa) and Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.); and open seats in New York and Pennsylvania.
Republicans dismiss talk of Democrats retaking the majority, believing that at worst, they’ll lose just a few spots from their historic 246-seat majority. The National Republican Congressional Committee already is eyeing Reps. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), two longtime targets, and hopes to take back seats won by freshman Reps. Brad Ashford (D-Neb.) and Gwen Graham (D-Fla.).
“If Democrats are going to change their messaging in 2016, they should focus on explaining to the American people why they support the disastrous policies that have devastated hard-working middle-class families and small businesses,” said NRCC spokeswoman Katie Martin Prill.
For now, Democrats say they’re in good shape ahead of 2016.
“There’s no conventional wisdom in politics anymore,” said Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.). “Would anyone have predicted that [Republican former House majority leader Eric Cantor] would lose his seat? We’re in an environment where anything can happen.”