BALTIMORE — On this House Democrats agree: Opposition to President Trump might be the most unifying force the party has seen in a generation, but it alone will not return Democrats to power.
And figuring out a compelling alternative, many of the lawmakers who gathered here for their annual policy retreat said, is easier said than done.
Party leaders said Thursday that they had confidence in the essence of the Democratic message: “We believe that Americans should have an economy that works for everyone, not just the privileged few,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “You’ve heard it so many times that it sounds like a cliche.”
Pelosi said that message remains sound, and that the challenge for Democrats isn’t overhauling their policies but refining their communications to millions of Americans who, a decade ago, handed Democrats the House majority but have now returned power to Republicans — including to Trump.
“We just didn’t have the emotional connection,” she said. “He had the emotional connection, and that always is an advantage in the campaign.”
But other members expressed concern that in the wake of Trump’s victory and with the GOP in control of both houses of Congress, the problems go deeper than messaging. The party is facing an emboldened progressive wing whose lessons from 2016 included adopting an edgier set of economic policies.
That debate was reflected inside the closed-door sessions in Baltimore, where lawmakers heard from leaders of labor unions, major activist groups, progressive strategists and, controversially, a leader of a centrist think tank.
A Wednesday evening session featuring a vice president of Third Way, which advocates for business-friendly policies, sparked angry reactions from progressive activists who felt that their brand of Democratic politics was discredited by Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential race.
The mood inside the Hyatt Regency, by all accounts, remained civil, but it prompted discussion and debate over what direction the party should take — toward a big tent that encompasses an increasingly less relevant moderate wing or a more faithful adherence to progressive ideals, particularly on economic issues.
“The energy of this party is with a message of economic populism, of . . . questioning the rules of capitalism and saying that these rules have been rigged and written in a way that favors concentrated economic interests and need to be changed,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a freshman who represents much of Silicon Valley and a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
That is a view, espoused most prominently in the insurgent presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that is ascendant in Democratic circles. But plenty of lawmakers doubt whether an embrace of Sanders’s populism might have saved the Democrats last year.
In one panel with reporters, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) sharply disagreed with colleagues who suggested that adopting Sanders’s approach on economic issues might have changed the 2016 outcome for Democrats. “He didn’t win,” she said of Sanders, instead pointing to Trump’s “dog-whistle politics” that blamed immigrants, minorities and the poor for America’s ills.
A move to sideline business-friendly moderates is also at odds with the views of a considerable number of Democratic lawmakers, who are organized as the New Democrat Coalition.
“I’ve seen a majority, and a majority looks like people who have very different backgrounds, who use different language, who emphasize different things,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, told reporters. “We better be pretty open-minded about doing everything we can to get bigger and more diverse rather than smaller and more orthodox.”
But, by and large, Democratic leaders preferred to dwell on the major force binding them together: Trump.
Several party leaders, including Pelosi, painted him as a charlatan who has shown no sign of making good on populist campaign promises such as building infrastructure and divorcing Washington from Wall Street.
“When you think about developing our message, there may be disagreements around the edges of how you get there, but it’s a contrast to what we’re seeing from the Trump administration, which is a government filled with Wall Street billionaires who are developing policies to keep the system more rigged against working families,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the House Democrats’ policy committee.
Others wondered how useful an exercise it is to predict and prepare for a midterm election that is more than 20 months away in a Trump-driven political environment that changes by the second depending on Trump’s whims.
“I sat there thinking, ‘Well, this isn’t that easy to define a message that waves a magic wand and gets us back the majority,’ ” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). “I have my own opinion on it, which is: Either Donald Trump hands it to us or not.”