House Democrats went into their annual issues conference with an unfamiliar challenge: How to win back power when voters are more confident in the economy than they’ve been in nearly 20 years.
In one scenario, dramatized by Thursday’s plunging stock market, the economy could sink and take Republicans down with it. In another, evident in polling since the GOP passed a massive tax cut in December, voters might be happy with the direction of the country and skeptical of a need for change.
“It’s great that moderate and lower income people got a tax cut,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who likely will lead the House Budget Committee if his party wins the majority in November’s midterm elections. “But we’re going into $2 trillion of debt, and for that same amount of money, we could pay off everybody’s student loan debt, we could give free community college to everybody who wants it, we could fix every bridge in the country.”
The Democrats’ retreat, originally designed to unfold over three days in a Maryland resort, was downsized to a series of meetings and breakout sessions between votes on the must-pass spending bill. The schedule included talks on immigrant communities threatened by the Trump administration, the investigation into Russian interference in American elections, and the fast-changing politics of legal marijuana.
“We want to accomplish more than just blocking what’s bad,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the party’s conference chairman, as the meetings began. “None of us wants our legacy to be: Things were awful, but at least they weren’t worse.”
Since last summer, Democrats have packaged their economic agenda in a “Better Deal,” a series of liberal proposals that they added to on Thursday with several infrastructure ideas.
But over two days, there were fresh reminders of how difficult it is to control the news cycle and highlight the party’s economic plans. First, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered an eight-hour marathon speech on the floor, demanding protection from deportation for young undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children. Next, Pelosi urged her Democratic caucus to vote “no” on the massive spending bill to force the GOP to act for these at-risk immigrants.
“I think there’s been a singular focus that probably wasn’t representative of why we voted against the bill,” said Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio). “I think DACA is extremely important, but I also believe that we voted no last time for more reasons than just DACA,” a reference to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Trump rescinded last September.
One House Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said there was anger in the caucus at Pelosi for forcing lawmakers into a bad choice, where voting for a spending bill without an immigration solution meant “you’re somehow against the dreamers, or you’re a racist,” and voting against it meant attack ads accusing them of supporting “illegal immigrants" over U.S. citizens.
“They’re already doing it,” said the lawmaker, referring to a controversial spot from Trump’s reelection campaign. ‘They already have the ad up, that’s the direction they’re going, and I think we need to say that they’re trying to use this as a political issue, they’re trying to use these kids as a political issue.”
The economic agenda was simpler, though not necessarily an easy sell. Even some Democrats were surprised by the unpopularity of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed with no Democratic votes and initially polled below 30 percent .
Since then, Republicans and business groups have aggressively promoted stories of businesses handing out bonuses with some of their tax savings, and both are working to highlight the higher take-home pay most workers will get this year.
“The Democratic messaging on the tax bill remains strong and persuasive, but voters have not heard much from Democrats about the tax bill recently while the other side has been communicating about it much more consistently,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “Even when there are other issues that demand the attention of Democrats in Congress and their progressive supporters, it is self-defeating to get distracted from a focus on economic issues, including both the tax bill and the Republican war on health care.”
Already, Democrats are careful talking about a tax bill they worked to defeat. Asked at Wednesday’s news conferences if they would campaign on repealing the bill, both Crowley and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said that they would focus on fixing what was wrong with it.
“Democrats are for creating economic security for the American people, and for the struggling and hard-working people of this country,” said Crowley. “We’re not in favor of putting the country further out of balance.”
Casey, who faces reelection in a state Trump won in 2016, emphasized that Democrats had been cut out of the process of writing the bill, but acknowledged that some aspects had been favored by his party all along.
“Of course, if we were working with them, we would have supported a strong corporate tax cut, though maybe not what they were proposing,” he said. ‘We wanted a much bigger tax cut for the middle class.”
For now, Democrats are operating under the assumption that the economy will grow throughout 2018. The House has changed hands under those circumstances before; in 2006, the year of the last Democratic takeover, gross domestic product growth clocked in at 2.7 percent, and unemployment fell to 4.5 percent.
“If we were in recession, would Democrats be doing better? Yes,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), who leads the party’s efforts to recruit House candidates. “Do I wish for that? No. It’s a good thing for America that the economy is growing. In the alternative, if this economy were to grow soft, it would be a tremendous body blow to Republican efforts.”
There was more agreement that the party needed to focus on what it would change, and less on litigating the bill that had passed.
“I kind of expected there’d be a little bit of a bump,” said Yarmuth. “I’m talking to my constituents, and some of them are getting $200 back, and they’re happy about that. Nancy called them crumbs — that was a big mistake, because they’re not.”
Jeff Stein, Erica Werner, and Ed O’Keefe contributed reporting.