Completely sapped of power in Washington, top leaders of the Democratic Party now believe that the best way to fight a president who penned “The Art of the Deal” is with an economic agenda that they plan to call “A Better Deal.”
Democratic leaders shared few details to preserve suspense around the plan, which is scheduled to be unveiled Monday at an event in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, where the party hopes to defeat incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R). But some lawmakers, aides and outside advocates consulted on the new agenda said that it is expected to focus on new proposals to fund job-training programs, renegotiate trade deals and address soaring prescription-drug costs, as well as other issues. It is also expected to endorse long-held Democratic principles, including “a living wage” of $15 per hour and already unveiled spending plans for infrastructure that would expand broadband Internet access into rural counties.
The rollout comes as Democrats continue to struggle to sell a coherent message to voters. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 37 percent of Americans said that the party “currently stands for something,” while 52 percent said it “just stands against Trump.” The same poll found that Trump’s overall approval rating has deteriorated to 36 percent — making him the most unpopular president of the modern era at this point in his presidency.
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Those findings resonate with party leaders who are still stunned by Trump’s come-from-behind victory last year.
“When you lose to somebody who has 40 percent popularity, you don’t blame other things — Comey, Russia — you blame yourself,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview previewing the new plan. “So what did we do wrong? People didn’t know what we stood for, just that we were against Trump. And still believe that.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed, explaining in a separate interview that the new focus “is not a course correction, but it’s a presentation correction.”
But outside of Washington, some progressives worry that a focus on messaging has convinced Democrats that their policies were in no need of a rethink, while voters were crying out for more.
Many Democrats have watched with frustration for years as Republicans in Congress neatly packaged their policy proposals with catchy slogans and sleekly produced online videos fronted by younger, telegenic lawmakers crisply delivering campaign promises.
During the 2010 congressional campaign cycle that swept Republicans backed by the tea party into power, they were led by rising stars, including future House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and future House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). As House Budget Committee chairman, Ryan starred in online videos that broke down complex plans into simple sound bites. More recently as speaker, Ryan and his caucus have embraced the “A Better Way” agenda that includes conservative proposals to revamp poverty programs, health care and taxes, plus a hawkish national security stance. Last year, the plank was seen as a way to distance congressional Republicans from Trump.
“Republicans talk in headlines; Democrats speak in fine print,” conceded Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who co-chaired a team of House lawmakers tasked with leading the revamp. “That ends this week. We’re going to make sure that we’re able to reach the American people in a clear and compelling fashion.”
“A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future” is the new slogan hatched after months of strategy sessions on Capitol Hill and late-night dinners at Washington restaurants hosted by Schumer, Pelosi, Jeffries and other rank-and-file House and Senate lawmakers.
Stephanie Kelton, a former economics adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said that she was consulted as Democrats crafted “A Better Deal.” Party leaders, she said, seemed to understand that “establishment economics just can’t accommodate a bold, progressive economic platform.” She said that meant worrying less about the deficit and more about whether voters were seeing their quality of life improve.
Trump “is using the budget to serve a handful of billionaires and large corporations,” Kelton said in an email. “I’d like to see the Democrats practice their own version of this by talking always (and only) about how their policies will meaningfully improve life for the rest of us.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who with Jeffries and Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) co-chaired the House’s work on the new agenda, said that there will be little mention of what has become all-consuming in Washington: Trump and the investigations embroiling his administration.
During conversations with voters back home, “not one has brought up Russia to me, not one has brought up impeachment,” said Bustos, who represents a northwestern Illinois district that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. “We have to figure out this heartland messaging if we’re going to get to 218 members of Congress by 2018.”
Jeffries agreed, recounting that during town-hall meetings across his district, which cuts across much of Brooklyn, “it was all about pocketbook issues, housing challenges, crime, public safety, failures of the public schools,” he said. “It was an enlightening moment for me. Because we spend so much time with what I think all of us do view as an existential threat to our democracy — what’s going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
To win back the House, Democrats will need to win at least 24 new seats next year — a margin that independent, nonpartisan observers believe is in reach if Trump’s approval rating remains low and Republicans fail to enact signature campaign promises, including repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting a tax overhaul. Democratic gains in the Senate will be harder as the party needs to defend 25 seats and is only expected to mount competitive races against Republican incumbents from Arizona and Nevada.
Whether candidates in swing districts will embrace a campaign battle plan drawn up in Washington is unclear.
Schumer said the new agenda “is not about moving the party left or right, and it’s not about appealing to one coalition or another. A strong, sharp-edged, populist, bold economic message appeals to the Obama coalition and the people who voted for Trump — former Democrats who voted for Trump.”
Grumblings about the "Better Deal" plan began late last week when a reporter for the news website Vox tweeted that Democrats' messaging would include some focus-group language — "better skills, better jobs, better wages" — first used by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). The reporter later deleted the tweet, but the news tweaked left-wing critics who began tearing apart the alleged slogan, suggesting that "better skills" was an insult to workers — and that the "better" formulation itself evoked the corporate slogan of Papa John's Pizza.
"Please God someone tell me this is not real," Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for President Barack Obama, tweeted at the news, adding later: "Fire the consultant who created it right now."
But Schumer especially is excited by the new focus, vowing that it’s an expression “that everyone will use — a better deal for workers, a better deal for women, a better deal for prescription-drug buyers.”
That construction — similar to the pizza slogan — is what worries some liberal critics. But the Senate leader is convinced that it will work.
“Part of this is its usability, its repetition and its relation to both the New Deal and a better deal than Trump,” Schumer said. “He’s supposed to be a dealmaker; he’s not very good at that.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.