National Democrats’ new message isn’t about Trump (but it kind of still is)

On a steamy July afternoon, a handful of Washington Democrats traveled out to Berryville, Virginia — a town of about 4,000, 50 miles outside the Beltway — to announce something to working American people: President Donald Trump and the Republicans are ripping you off. We have a better deal.

That’s what they’re offering, both figuratively and literally: Echoing FDR’s New Deal — and evoking the president’s favorite word — Democrats last week in Virginia officially rolled out A Better Deal, their new economic message for the Trump era.

Flanked by a handpicked group of Democrats — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared that for too long, Americans didn’t know what Democrats stood for, and avoided tackling the tough issues head-on.

Describing an era where working Americans are increasingly getting squeezed by economic forces beyond their control, Schumer derided Wall Street and special interests in framing his party’s fresh message. “We are here today to tell the working people of America: Someone has your back,” the New York senator said to applause.

Kicked out of the White House, in the minority in Congress, and losing grip on statehouses nationwide, Democrats have spent 2017 reckoning with their failures and trying to chart a new way forward, one that offers voters something beyond acid criticism of Trump.

If A Better Deal is their roadmap, Democrats are looking to bank on the populist sentiment Trump rode to the White House, but with a focus on jobs, the minimum wage, and fighting corporations to help ordinary Americans — and maybe, just a bit about the deal-maker-in-chief who Democrats argue has reneged on his populist promises.

Bread and butter: jobs, wages, infrastructure

Democrats have been consumed with Trump since his election: They have fought the GOP’s plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, while raising alarms over his campaign’s ties with agents of the Russian government — and steps he allegedly took to rein in that investigation when in office.

But Democrats say that just running against Trump won’t return them to power.

“It’s helpful for the American people to hear a positive economic message as opposed to just negative,” said Klobuchar. “People are getting tired of just negative.”

A year and a half away from the critical 2018 midterm elections, Democrats are rolling out A Better Deal to give voters an idea of what they are for, as they seek to reduce Republicans’ majorities in the House and Senate.

Though elements of the platform have yet to be specified, the policy that’s there now represents the current state of the party: a mix of specific initiatives long touted by the Democratic establishment, and progressive policies made mainstream thanks to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy for president in 2016.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, center right, joined other Congressional Democrats

REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, center right, joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, center, and other Congressional Democrats to unveil the new slogan in Berryville, Virginia, on July 24.

One of the platform’s themes — “build an economy that gives working Americans the tools to succeed in the 21st century” — emphasizes creating incentives, such as tax credits, for businesses to invest in boosting their employees’ skills. It’s the kind of pragmatic, think-tank-approved policy that was a hallmark of Barack Obama’s administration.

Sanders’ fingerprints are elsewhere — most notably on the platform’s call for a $15 minimum wage.

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There are also items nearly all Democrats can get behind. A Better Deal calls for a $1 trillion package investing in infrastructure, for example, along with expanding family and sick leave. It also proposes reining in high prices for prescription drugs by letting Medicare bargain directly with pharmaceutical companies, as the Veterans’ Administration does.

There is a plank devoted to countering the negative effects that corporate consolidation has on consumers. Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on antitrust, introduced this section at the announcement in Virginia.

Democrats say that what they’ve released is so far just the foundation of their platform. Klobuchar said that the party will continue to introduce policies, including some new ones; she mentioned a policy regarding the so-called “gig economy,” which has little regulation on the federal level.

Trying to ‘unrig the system’

To some Minnesota Democrats, A Better Deal is a good first step in making the case to voters that Democrats are with them. Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum said, “The American people need to know that Democrats stand for putting the middle class and hard-working families first, not coming up with tax legislation that lines the pockets of the one percent.”

“Too many people believe, and rightly so, that the rules of the economy are against them,” Klobuchar said, citing things like rising prescription drug costs. “We’re trying to bring some balance back. We think that’s better for the economy and for the people who work in the economy.”

“We thought it was very important that we put out an economic agenda for America early on,” she said, “and we didn’t spend our time talking about Donald Trump.”

Rep. Betty McCollum

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Betty McCollum

Sen. Al Franken said “It seems like the economy is rigged … that’s what most people are angry about,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is to unrig the system, and try to build a middle class.”

The Minnesotans’ usage of phrases like “one percent” and “rigged” are evocative of Sanders’ populist brand. Those who cover the progressive left, like Vox’s Jeff Stein, say that A Better Deal is a step in the Sanders direction.

First District Rep. Tim Walz, a moderate Democrat, said the party’s renewed focus on economic issues was encouraging.

“My first-blush response is, this isn’t horrible,” Walz said of the platform, adding, “I understand it says something about my expectation that it wasn’t going to be very good.”

To some on the progressive left, A Better Deal is not enough of a step in their direction. They frame a Better Deal as a warmed-over serving of centrist policy that, despite its populist tone, does not address the root causes of wage stagnation, income inequality, and other ills.

Jonathan Tasini, a former Sanders surrogate, wrote for CNN that “A Better Deal embraces falsehoods about economic power while leaving a bankrupt system unchallenged,” citing its failure to advocate expansion of Social Security and free college tuition.

Democrats, Tasini argues, continue to show voters that they’re not much different from Republicans, and will keep losing elections unless they take a different path. “Until the Democrats get this message, they might as well have a slogan closer to ‘Better Hygiene, Better Grammar, Better Front Lawns.’”

Will it make a difference?

In any event, Democrats have their work cut out for them. According to a Washington Post poll, over half of Americans think the party only stands against Trump, not for something. Though polls show voters prefer a generic Democratic candidate for Congress over a Republican one, a May poll from Gallup gave Democrats a 40 percent approval rating, down from 45 percent in November.

Some Democrats say they have a trust issue with voters, one that won’t get worked out with better talking points. “People don’t believe we’re on their side, for whatever reason,” Walz said.

“If you think it’s just about the message alone, I don’t think you’re going to get there,” he said. “A lot of folks, especially in rural areas, that simply did not believe [Democrats]. … To get them to believe is going to take more than just talking points.”

Sen. Al Franken

REUTERS/Richard Clement
Sen. Al Franken

Franken added that Democrats, who many people associate with the elite, have a perception problem. Voters, he said, “don’t have a lot of faith in Congress, and don’t think Congress is looking out for them. We have not effectively made the argument that we are,” he said. “In putting out this agenda, we’re telling them what we’re for and now what we’re against.”

Will Democrats prevail if people, finally, know what they stand for? Some, like the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, point out that Republicans won big in the 2010 and 2014 midterms by running hard against Obama — not by hand-wringing over what their overarching economic message was.

Even in their economic vision, Democrats find it hard to escape Trump — it’s evident in the name of their plan, according to Steven Schier, professor of politics at Carleton College. “That’s implicit in the framing,” Schier says. “We’re going to out-Trump Trump. A better deal than Trump can give you.”

Democrats say they can criticize Trump and advance an economic agenda at the same time — in fact, they might go hand-in-hand. Franken suggested their agenda serves to highlight the president going back on his promises to voters.

“He hasn’t been doing what he promised to do,” he said. “The health care bill that he had a celebration for in the Rose Garden cut Medicaid by $800 billion, and virtually all of that went to families above $250,000 in income. He said he wouldn’t cut Medicaid. That’s not what he’s done.”

“I think this will be the most important thing we do,” Klobuchar said of the platform. “Politics is about improving people’s lives. … There’s no reason you can’t do both.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 08/02/2017 - 11:23 am.

    gullibility is the new reality for repubs

    Both Bernie and trump said a lot of things that people believed would help them, which made them popular. So far, all we’ve seen from trump has been to make that swamp far worse, as he has embraced Putin and insulted almost everyone of our allies…and you repubs are ok with this?

    Remember trump telling us that we’d have the best healthcare at much lower prices.
    How did that work out with trumps support of this far crueler repub bill that kicks millions off, which will drastically increase rates for those approaching middle class? And…let’s not ignore their attempt to cut Medicaid which helps fund our rural doctors and hospitals as well as nursing homes.

    An interesting comment that was common from the right was that Obama and Hillary were the laughing stock of the world…which was a lie. Truth is, it is trump who is the laughing stock of the world and let us not ignore that the free world is scared of this inept and deceitful trump.
    This is what republicanism is today…deceit without a smidgen of honesty.

    I cannot respect those on the right with how gullible and naive they are without a clue as to what is reality.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 08/02/2017 - 11:55 am.

      Look at the results

      Again just more insults – and you wonder why liberals are losing, even to a guy like Trump.

      Then you take the results of what happened under Obama. Doubled the national debt (with most of it set up with Dems having all of Congress including a supermajority in the Senate) after as a Senator, Obama often proclaimed that debt is ‘un-American.’ Then let’s look at Obamacare, which was promised as saving at least $2500 per year for each family while keeping your doctors and health plans, all done with numbers that were falsified by a man who had to give back much of the money he earned from many states on the subject. Labor participation was at record highs not seen in generations. Home ownership was at all time lows. People on welfare were at record numbers. The divide between the rich and poor is greater than ever and the middle class shrunk.

      The voters have likened to someone who will take on anyone in Washington because it’s time to shake things up. They may not like his style, but are sick of the crud in Washington. And Democrats want to push more of what has failed in addition to the demagoguery. The losing will continue unless the Dems figure out how to listen to people on things the voters want, not what the Dems think is best for the electorate.

      • Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 08/02/2017 - 02:58 pm.

        Doubling of the Debt

        Yes, most of it came in 2009-10. It was a result of putting the Iraq War and Medicare Part D (Bush stuff) on the books. A little honest accounting.

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 08/02/2017 - 12:01 pm.

      Thanks for the laughs

      in response to an article about dems trying to reconnect with voters that have lost faith in them and their message, you respond with the same tired old ridicules and insults of those very voters. Nice work!

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/02/2017 - 10:00 pm.

    Better living through democracy

    Republicans are about government by some people (selfish, rich, white and mostly male) for people like them. Democrats are for government by all the people for all the people.

    Republicans wrap themselves in the flag and wave around their cross. The only Republicans who actually put country before party in this adminstration are a couple generals who possess the entire stock of personal integrity in that sorry group. That is the reason Republicans have accomplished nothing positive with all the power they grab. They know what they don’t like (whatever Obama proposed) but have no goal other than one-party rule supported by a police state where the wealth own all our countries prosperity.

    The media has the spotlight constantly on the Trump telenovela – a soup opera on steroids. He has the country in a massive gawkers’ slowdown, where we have lost focus on where we are going – off a cliff. Trump is the opiate of the people – particularly his people. Democrats get to figure out how to clean up the accident and break the trance. As long as the media kept focusing on Trump, it won’t happen,

    The real action is in federal departments, Congress and the Courts. Federal departments are doing seek and destroy of things like the air we breath, the water we drive, the places we work and where our kids go to school, the security of our investments, communities, homes and retirement. The Congress has the ability to legislate to solve problems, not just punish those they disapprove of. And the courts / what ridiculous decisions will they make next? All Republican all the time.

    Democrats need to unify. Refighting the 2016 election is pointless. The enemy is the modern Republican Party, which wants to turn back the calender somewhere between 50 and 200 years in terms of who controls society. That cannot be allowed to happen.

  3. Submitted by Richard Vert on 08/27/2018 - 08:45 pm.

    Democrats care about one thing , their own power .

    This is why they are so fired up to flood the country with immigrants . Legal or otherwise . They see these people who mostly live in poverty as the voter base they need to hold power for the next 30 years . They could care less about the millions of AMERICANS who are now on the street as a result of a massive shortage of affordable housing . I’m 60 years old , disabled , and one bad day away from living in a tent on a sidewalk . 15 years ago the trailer park I live in was 90% retired & disabled . Today 90% don’t speak English . Democrats don’t care one bit about you , me , the country , nothing but their own power .

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