Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill will spend the next 15 months talking up the new “Better Deal” economic message they unveiled last week.
What’s not clear is if anyone else will follow.
The national party remains far from consensus on a unified message — Democrats can’t even agree on whether the party needs one.
“Just as there isn’t one kind of Democrat, there are not just one kind of message that works,” said California Rep. Jim Costa, a Blue Dog Coalition co-chair. “One size doesn’t fit all. We have an economically diverse country.”
When the party’s congressional leaders gathered in suburban Virginia to roll out the new affirmative economic message they’d long been promising, it was designed to give Democrats a way to talk about what exactly they stand for — other than simply standing as the party of opposition to the White House.
But not every incumbent wants to be associated with the party’s message. And many of the party’s influential constituent groups and moneyed organizations are busy pursuing their own messaging and branding initiatives, and remain in the early stages of their own investigations into what went wrong in November. Some — including the Democratic National Committee and individual state party committees — are busy preparing their own, independent lines of messaging.
“There are some really useful and interesting big-picture thoughts in the plans released [last week]. But candidates have to make that their own in their state — we’re telling them to tell their own story,” Democratic Governors Association executive director Elisabeth Pearson said of her instructions to the party’s gubernatorial candidates running in 2017 and 2018 — when 38 governor’s mansions will be up for grabs. “We’re counseling people to put forth their own focused economic agenda about how they would move their state forward.”
It’s led to a schism between those who insist the party will only succeed in 2018 if its candidates run on a centralized agenda, and those who point to recent wave elections like the GOP’s 2010 victory and Democrats’ 2006 romp as evidence that mere antipathy toward the party in power, rather than a memorable message, can be effective.
“It’s a good thing that national Democrats are trying to coalesce around a generally unifying message about economic opportunity and job creation as an alternative to Trumpism. However, very few candidates are going to run on a national platform — nor should they,” cautioned communications strategist Zac Petkanas. “While there will likely be similar themes about a corrupt, out-of-touch Trump Washington and creating economic opportunity for all, candidates are going to tailor their own messages against their individual opponents while taking advantage of a national Trump backlash. That’s how races are won and lost."
While Democratic senators who are up for re-election in 2018 were briefed on the new message ahead of time, their campaign teams are unlikely to rely heavily on a line that ties them closely to their unpopular national party, said a number of strategists working on those races. A similar dynamic faces the party’s gubernatorial candidates: 27 of the contested seats are held by Republicans, including some in heavily conservative states where national Democrats are especially unpopular.
“If you’re not in the majority, there shouldn’t be a coordinated message,” said another Democratic consultant who is working on a wide range of 2018 races, acknowledging that arguing against a unified message is unfashionable at the moment. “The message should be: ‘The other guy sucks,’ or ‘The Iraq War sucks,’ depending on the decade.”
Moderate House Democrats have taken a cautious approach to the new messaging strategy.
Lawmakers from left-of-center groups like the New Democrats and the Blue Dog Coalition joined other members at the podium to tout the “Better Deal” during a press conference last week. But while both groups have broadly endorsed the idea of a pro-economic agenda — something they said was sorely lacking heading into November 2016 — they’ve noticeably shied away from voicing support for the specific progressive-leaning policy ideas outlined so far.
“We agree on the broader goal of creating economic prosperity for the American people,” said Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, another Blue Dog leader. “What we want to do is create economic opportunities, not guarantee results.”
That tap dance isn’t by accident. Moderates want to be seen as team players, which is why some attended the Better Deal roll-out press conference. They support the overall goals of the messaging initiative, but don’t intend to run on a message that they worry can be interpreted as anti-business back home in their districts.
Still, several centrist lawmakers and aides told POLITICO they are encouraged that their leaders are shifting the spotlight away from social issues that threaten to divide the party and toward economic issues where there is more agreement.
Blue Dogs, in particular, say they are encouraged by the attention they have received from Democratic leaders after years of feeling like they’re stuck on the margins. They’ve worked closely with House Democrats’ campaign arm on recruitment in recent months and are relieved pro-jobs policies finally seem to be the party’s focus.
Yet the Schumer-driven effort isn’t the last word. The Democratic National Committee has for months been working on its own rebranding project. Led by new Chairman Tom Perez, the DNC has brought both public and private sector voices into a wide-ranging discussion about Democratic identity, while a handful of state party leaders — left out of the congressional conversation — are plowing ahead with their own unrelated efforts to define a new agenda.
In battleground Ohio, the state party formed a messaging working group after the election that included advertising and consumer marketing professionals in addition to party activists. They meet regularly to devise a new brand and narrative for Democrats in a state that Trump won easily after two consecutive Obama victories — an effort supplemented by the state party’s polling, focus groups, and extensive individual interviews of voters who backed Trump after supporting Obama or who sat out 2016 altogether.
Still more influential groups haven’t even tried pushing a specific new campaign message — they’re still studying the 2016 results. That includes organizations ranging from the centrist Third Way think tank to a forum convened by the AFL-CIO political director, to the House Majority PAC.
Even Priorities USA Action, the largest Democratic super PAC, has stopped short of concrete suggestions, instead urging allies to spend more time talking about economic issues and less about others like the Russia investigations.
“Frankly, I’m not focused on national Democratic slogans as much as I am on what’s going on at people’s kitchen tables at home,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who already faces one GOP challenger next year, said in an interview. “But I think what they’re trying to do with it is really good and that is to simplify priorities on economic issues that really matter to working people.”
In crafting the “Better Deal” plan that includes measures to keep drug prices in check, rein in big corporations, and improve job training, Schumer and others made sure to bring many allies of Bernie Sanders into the repeated meetings and strategy sessions. It was an attempt to find a message that could span the ideological breadth of the Democratic Caucus, satisfying both the Vermont senator and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who faces a difficult reelection campaign in a state Trump won by 42 points.
But neither side has embraced it fully. The group spawned from Sanders’ presidential campaign, Our Revolution, continues to pressure lawmakers to sign onto eight progressive bills — from a single-payer health care measure to automatic voter registration legislation. And many Sanders’ supporters remain deeply suspicious of anything produced by party leadership.
Manchin, a member of Schumer’s leadership team, openly questioned why it would “take two new agencies” — a reference to the creation of two new government entities to help consumers, one focused on drug prices and another on antitrust — to crack down on corporate influence.
“We’re not going to all have the same concerns and have the same fixes,” said Manchin, who was consulted in advance on the rural broadband proposal included in the national agenda and otherwise praised Schumer’s attempts at creating an inclusive message.
“So if there’s going to be a big tent,” he added, party leaders should “understand that we have problems too” in red states.
Other red-state Senate Democrats expressed similarly cautious support for the party’s new messaging.
“We need new ideas, and I appreciate the opportunity to have ongoing discussions about the overall agenda,” North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who joins Heitkamp and Manchin near the top of the GOP’s 2018 target list, said “generally speaking, I support” the agenda “because it’s got a lot of stuff for broadband and infrastructure.”
Leaders don’t expect every politically endangered incumbent to embrace the entire agenda on the campaign trail, according to one senior Senate Democratic aide.
“There is no question that quality candidates and campaigns that focus on the particular needs of different states and districts are essential,” the aide said. “But anyone who doesn’t think we Democrats need to offer a positive economic agenda need only look in the Oval Office and the Hill to see that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. People in California, Montana, Florida and Missouri want better paying jobs and to see their expenses go down — the appeal is universal.”