BALTIMORE — More powerless than they’ve been in a decade, House Democrats started a 48-hour soul-searching retreat this week still divided over an appealing economic agenda.
But the first three weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have shaken them, creating a greater sense of urgency than they expected and leading many to set aside what now seem like petty post-election arguments about how to divvy up the tiny spoils of defeat.
Gone are the squabbles over how to add junior-level posts to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team. Trump’s executive orders and the Republican-controlled Congress’s efforts to dismantle the legacy of Barack Obama’s administration quickly took care of that.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), barely into his third year in office, summed up the levels of grief House Democrats went through after their party lost every level of power: “Deep sadness, depression, then anger.” Now, however, fear of Trump is forcing them to think bigger.
“Donald Trump is a great unifier,” he said.
He is also a great trap — a magnet for attacks that some rank-and-file Democrats worry are appealing to liberal coastal elites but not to the dozens of inland congressional districts that Democrats need to win if they’re ever going to take back the House majority.
Boyle was part of the loose collection of antagonists who after the election pleaded with Democratic leaders for more economic issues on the agenda. That uprising culminated with a third of the caucus voting in leadership elections for a backbench Democrat, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, instead of Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Pelosi met this week with a large group of those Democrats who have been agitating for agenda items that appeal beyond the liberal base. Their goal is an economic message that can appeal to the more than 40 percent of voters in union households who voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton — the largest percentage in a presidential race since 1988.
“I think there have been steps in the right direction, moving toward an economic message,” Ryan said in an interview Tuesday, before heading to a Democratic policy retreat that runs through Friday here in Charm City.
On Wednesday, at a press conference kicking off the retreat, Pelosi cited several economic issues that came out of her meeting with the group of mostly Rust Belt Democrats, including Trump’s campaign pledges to promote a massive infrastructure bill and to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement — areas Democrats would be inclined to work with him.
“The first weeks of the Trump administration have completely exposed the hollowness of the President’s promises to the American people,” she said.
Several forums on the retreat slate are focused on economics, including one titled “Taking a Stand for Working Americans” and moderated by Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). They’re members of the newly formed Blue Collar Caucus, which Boyle, Ryan and others recently founded. All four hail from states that twice went for Obama but in 2016 went to Trump, who won by running up margins within the white working class.
Some of these Democrats are pushing for legislation that would create a national broadband network, to be built immediately. “Smart grid now, hire people now,” Ryan said. “On-the-job training, none of this ‘We’ll train you for a job that may or may not exist.’ ”
Less clear is whether these Democrats can harness the power and energy of the party’s liberal base. At this week’s retreat, for instance, there are as many or more sessions on the schedule that deal with social issues. And the two main speakers — NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and entertainment personality Chelsea Handler — are certainly not there to teach Democrats how to connect with lunch-pail voters.
But they do appeal to liberal activists — the participants of the women’s marches the weekend of Trump’s inauguration; the protesters who organized after his executive order banning refugees from around the world and foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations; the congressional Democrats and more than 1,000 activists who took to the steps of the Supreme Court and called on Trump to revoke the order.
Some Democrats say the party must tap into this energy but redirect it and expand on it with policy ideas that have broader appeal. “I think there’s still groups of people in the country who want us to get a bullhorn and go to the Supreme Court on inner-city economic issues, on how we bring investment to our core cities or areas like mine — you know, rural areas,” said Ryan, whose district is anchored in Youngstown, a former manufacturing hub.
This week’s retreat finds the Democratic caucus at its lowest point in 12 years, just after George W. Bush won reelection and Democrats failed to win the majority in the House or Senate. In the past six retreats, even though they were in the minority, they at least had the honor of hosting the president and vice president. Not this time.
Immediately after the November elections, the caucus was bitterly divided, and Pelosi responded by creating new seats at the leadership table and on committees. The resulting competition for those internal plums didn’t go exactly as many believe she wanted, a sign that members were looking for more independent voices in leadership meetings.
Pelosi had called Trump “the gift that keeps on giving” last year, believing he would lead to large gains for House Democrats and Clinton. Together, those two campaigns focused almost exclusively on Trump’s temperament and fitness for office in the final weeks before the election, and the results were brutal.
Now, with his early actions, Trump again looks like a tempting target, and even people such as Ryan are beginning to see 2018 as an opportunity for big gains if the president remains unpopular. But they also know that, without a new, positive economic agenda, Democrats will not win back districts beyond their urban strongholds.
“We need to be screaming from a bullhorn for all of these groups,” Ryan said.