Under the Capitol’s dome and far from depopulated coal country and abandoned steel mills, Democratic members in the Senate and House have been calling for a new renewed focus on winning over blue-collar workers, floating measures on outsourcing and cheap imports and honing a message intended to reinvigorate their base.
Weeks of hand-wringing, exit poll studying and self-reflection have led many Democrats in Congress and across the country to believe that they lost sight of their economic message during the 2016 campaign, allowing Trump to co-opt Democrats’ agenda and become a working-class hero.
For Democrats reeling from defeat in November, rebuking Hillary Clinton’s election message and echoing Trump’s populist rhetoric is the way to revive the party. That comes with a tough appraisal of what went wrong in 2016.
“How we somehow over time became the party of elite donors and cocktail parties on the coasts is something that we should never have let happen,” Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who recently challenged House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for the party’s leadership position in the House, said in an interview.
“We’ve got to stand for working people. Working people think we left them,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
This week Democrats seized on two issues meant to broaden their popularity among working class voters: coal miners’ benefits and “Buy America” provisions in an infrastructure bill.
Leading the charge are red-state and Rust Belt Democrats like Manchin and Ryan and others from regions that Trump won by large margins. Trump won surprise victories in old industrial states that Obama won by large margins, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri have been vocal, as well as Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. Many of them are up for reelection in 2018 and are in vulnerable seats.
In the Senate, they threatened to hold up a resolution to fund the government unless Republicans extend coal miners’ health fund for one year. Republican Senate Majority Leader McConnell wants to continue the fund, which was established in the 1940s, only until early next year. In the House and Senate, Democrats are protesting Republicans’ removal from a water infrastructure bill a “Buy America” provision that would require government contracts to use American-produced steel.
“We’ve got have ‘Buy America’ and we’ve got to have the miners,” Sen. McCaskill said heatedly on Thursday midday.
And in recognition of the new political landscape, New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer, the incoming minority leader responsible for corralling his caucus, is also embracing populist rhetoric to shepherd the party in the Trump era.
At a press conference outside the Capitol on Thursday evening, Schumer, flanked by coal miners wearing work jackets and beards, praised the miners and urged Congress to extend their health benefits for a year.
“We want to get these beautiful people their due, and we won’t stop til we do,” Schumer said, standing alongside Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, as well as Manchin and Heitkamp.
By echoing Trump’s language, Democrats will be more in line with the president-elect on some issues than congressional Republicans are.
On Sunday, Trump proposed imposing a 35% tariff on all goods imported into the United States produced by companies that have left. While Republicans mostly scoffed at the idea of a tariff, several Democrats said later this week they were willing to support it.
“The message was very clear in this election that enough is enough: you can’t keep sending good-paying jobs to other countries and shipping those products back,” said Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, where Trump won a surprise victory over Clinton. “If that means a tariff, if it means other sorts of proposals, I’m going to be supportive of that.”
The debate over the economy is spilling into the fight for the Democratic National Committee chair position, a role that will help set the party’s message for the next four years and rebuild the party’s infrastructure at the state level.
Rep. Keith Ellison, who has won key endorsements in his race for the position as chair, including from Sen. Schumer and the AFL-CIO, has said the party needs rot refocus its economic message. His challengers, South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, have made similar pitches.
“We cannot be a party just based inside the beltway,” said interim DNC chair Donna Brazile. We have to have a message that “tells our consumers they have friends in office.”
Privately, however, Democrats are voicing some concern that merely embracing Trump’s language on trade will not revive the party.
Exit polls in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, Rust Belt states that supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012 but that Trump won in November show that economic losses alone do not account for Clinton’s defeat. Clinton exceeded Obama’s performance among people in those states who said the economy was the most important issue facing the country—but was badly outperformed by Trump among those who wanted to see a president who “can bring change.”
Some Democratic insiders believe that Trump’s victory was more about a message of change than about economic promises.
“For a politician who doesn’t want to admit that the electorate sent a message that they don’t like politicians, it’s far easier to scapegoat it on economic issues than it is to address the fundamental question: that there are voters in this country who no longer think their representatives represent them,” said a Democratic strategist involved in 2016.
With Trump presiding over a majority-Republican House and Senate, Democrats have been debating internally about how and when to work with Trump’s agenda. Many of those decisions will be made next year depending on what Trump proposes, but already there are signs Democrats are eager to embrace parts of Trump’s campaign promises.
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said on Friday he will be introducing legislation to enshrine part of Trump’s proposed anti-lobbying rules. Tester said the bill would ban members of Congress from lobbying for five years upon leaving their seats. The bill beats Republicans to the president-elect’s own proposal.
“The American people are sick of business as usual in Washington, D.C. and they want some changes,” said Tester in a conference call discussing his legislation. “We tried to match it up as close as we could to what [Trump] was saying on the campaign trail.”
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