INDIANAPOLIS — With the 2018 midterm elections approaching and control of Congress at stake, Democrats have yet to settle on an economic message that the whole party can get behind. The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, set out to try to hone one this past week on a listening tour with stops in Pittsburgh, Toledo and Indianapolis.
In so doing Hoyer ventured into states that are hosting some competitive House races and where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), already featured in numerous GOP attack ads this cycle, might be less welcome. Democrats are trying to pick up 24 seats to retake control of the House in November, and the road to their majority runs through Pennsylvania and perhaps even Ohio and Indiana.
“I think the Democrats have always had a strong economic policy, of investing in education, investing in research, investing in infrastructure,” Hoyer said in an interview between a fundraiser for an Indiana congressional candidate and meetings with local officials at the airport. “But it’s clear, particularly in middle America, that message has not resonated as strongly as it needs to. And so not only are we talking about it, but we’re bringing it to middle America.”
Democrats were divided in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election over whether they needed a new message, or just a new messenger. Those divisions remain But an effort led by Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to create a platform around the concept of “A Better Deal” has been only partly successful, with few Democratic candidates appearing to embrace it in their campaigns.
Hoyer’s listening tour on the theme of “Make It in America” offered a different approach, if not an implicit rebuke of the “Better Deal” framework. In sessions on topics including entrepreneurship, the education skills gap and infrastructure, Hoyer gathered suggestions from local officials and others on everything from how to improve technology at local airports to how to move forward with improving aging infrastructure.
In a discussion on infrastructure in Indianapolis, participants soundly rejected as impractical the Trump administration’s plan for an infrastructure bill involving a federal down payment of $200 billion that could be leveraged to produce $1 trillion or even $1.5 trillion of private, state and local spending. In Toledo, a discussion on the skills gap ranged from the sometimes prohibitive cost of training programs to the need for a vision for the rapidly changing future and the skills it will demand.
The topics were disparate, and Hoyer tried to listen more than he talked. But one point emerged clearly: “I think we Democrats just need to focus like a laser on the economic issues,” Hoyer said.
That’s not something Democrats excel at. That’s been evident over the last month or two, as the party has focused on the issue of immigration, including forcing the government into a three-day partial shutdown in an unsuccessful effort to gain protections for young undocumented immigrants. During that time, the Republicans’ new $1.5 trillion tax law appears to have grown increasingly popular, and it figures to be a major topic in the midterms with the GOP already attacking Democrats in Indiana and elsewhere for opposing it.
Hoyer defended Pelosi for saying that the legislation overwhelmingly helps the rich while bestowing “crumbs” on the middle class, a comment Republicans have pounced on as companies announce bonuses or pay raises for their workers. But Hoyer did say that he himself didn’t use the “crumbs” phrase.
“I don’t say it,” Hoyer said.
“In the context in which she said it, I get it. I don’t think it was a bad statement,” Hoyer added. “Unless they made this thing of it, I may never have ever thought it was a bad statement, because I sort of believe that’s what they did,” he added, pointing out that the tax legislation does in fact deliver relatively paltry benefits to those who arguably need it most, while offering a massive payday to corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
The long-standing rivalry between Pelosi and Hoyer is an open secret on Capitol Hill, and Hoyer’s trip also served the purpose of raising his profile and strengthening his alliances with some current and potentially future lawmakers, including several he held fundraisers for.
One such aspiring Democratic House member, Mel Hall, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), was grateful for Hoyer’s presence at a fundraising lunch, commenting after: “I think maybe too often Democrats have talked about what they are against, and we are very focused on what we are in favor of.”