You’re sure to get an earful asking a roomful of House Democrats if they can win back the majority just by running against President Trump.
“No!” shouted Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.). “You can’t beat something with nothing.”
“That’s not true!” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.) bellowed at the same moment, agreeing with Krishnamoorthi. “And people don’t need to be depressed even more than they are; they’re looking for hope.”
Two other Democrats nodded in agreement. “You even need me to answer that question?” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) asked rhetorically.
That’s why Crowley, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, launched several task forces designed to come up with actual legislative proposals that will form the backbone of the slowly emerging “Better Deal” agenda of House and Senate Democrats.
Democrats say they need a positive agenda to reshape the way middle-class voters view their party after last year’s disappointing showing, during which key Midwest battleground voters embraced Trump’s nationalist economic message.
Crowley rolled out the task forces to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the caucus at Wednesday’s weekly meeting. Their mandate is to take Democrats beyond just campaign slogans — such as “stronger together” or “I’m with her,” the two well-intended themes of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Their mission is to report back by December with proposals that can be drafted into legislation and then formally unveil them around the annual issues retreat outside Washington in late January, a full 10 months ahead of the pivotal 2018 midterm elections.
It’s a far more ambitious timeline than normal for the minority party. The Republicans, in their successful 1994 and 2010 campaigns that vaulted them back into the majority, waited until just weeks before those elections to unveil their agenda. The Democrats rolled out theirs a couple of months before the 2006 midterms thrust them into the majority.
But last year’s disappointment — Democrats gained just six seats despite much greater expectations — prompted a bit of rebellion. It was the fourth straight election that left House Democrats in the minority and the 10th of the past 12 campaigns that ended with Republicans in charge.
The rank-and-file Democrats forced some changes in the leadership structure and pushed younger members into positions of power on committees. These new task forces consist of more than 20 Democrats plucked from mid-level ranks, relative newcomers who do not occupy top posts on committees or in leadership.
Pelosi’s troops need to pick up 24 seats next year to claim the speaker’s gavel, and they know Trump’s unpopularity gives them an opening to make a case to voters to put them in charge. But Democrats saw that last year’s anti-Trump focus came up well short and say they need something more to sell to voters next year.
The task forces first want to understand how middle-class voters feel, both in the economy and toward previous Democratic proposals. “We’re going to do a diagnostic work-up to look at this future economy and what we need to do and what the needs are, so that we can fix this once and for all,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), first elected in 2012.
In Crowley’s office last week, the rank-and-file Democrats placed a large degree of blame on Clinton’s inability to promote an economic agenda. “We were not on track in the presidential last year,” Watson Coleman said. “We lost our narrative in the presidential.”
“I think we’re going to avoid 18-point plans,” Krishnamoorthi said, echoing a critique of Clinton’s inability to advance easy-to-grasp policy.
But congressional Democrats have themselves to blame for not fostering a broader set of appealing ideas the previous four years.
To use Ruiz’s phrase, the Democratic “diagnostic work-up” in the 2014 and 2016 elections identified stagnant wages and underemployment as key problems that eroded the middle class. But the prescription — often just a boost in the minimum wage and pay equity for female workers — fell short with voters.
It’s unclear what the next steps will be. Crowley’s group is working solely with House Democrats, leaving it uncertain whether Senate Democrats will embrace the eventual legislative proposals.
Krishnamoorthi, a pioneer in the solar industry before winning his suburban Chicago seat least year, has a fixation on the gap between the available jobs in high-tech manufacturing and the workers who do not possess the necessary skills. He wants to get away from the “elitist” label of being the party of lawyers and steer more high school students into short-term tech education so they can work in trades and other skilled jobs.
“There are too many attorneys and not enough plumbers. There are too many attorneys and not enough cybersecurity experts,” said Krishnamoorthi, who is on the economy task force.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), first elected last year, is pushing for legislation to promote clean energy technologies that seem destined to dominate the 21st-century economy. “We have values that we espouse and that we need to continue to celebrate. It is not clean water, clean air or a strong economy. They’re not mutually exclusive,” she said.
The five task forces are focused on economic proposals, with no mention of the cultural issues that sometimes dominate Democratic caucus politics. These groups are supposed to work with senior Democrats from the committees of jurisdiction in those policy areas, but Watson Coleman summed up the way many Democrats feel after so many defeats.
“Don’t let your feelings get hurt if someone comes up with a better idea,” she said.
The goal is to craft substantive proposals that ring true to the party’s “New Deal” roots of reviving the economy — and to move away from catchy slogans such as “stronger together” that sound nice but have no real meaning.
“Authenticity, that’s how you get it, that’s how you get it,” Crowley said. “This ain’t Fifth Avenue. This is the Democratic Caucus.”