DEMOCRATS split on mes­sage.

Tug of war seen on health care, Rus­sia, im­peach­ment fo­cus

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE PEO­PLES AND BILL BAR­ROW

NEW YORK — House Demo­cratic Cau­cus Chair­man Joe Crow­ley hes­i­tated when asked about his party’s core mes­sage to vot­ers.

“That mes­sage is be­ing worked on,” the New York con­gress­man said in an in­ter­view last week. “We’re do­ing every­thing we can to sim­plify it, but at the same time pro­vide the meat be­hind it as well. So that’s com­ing to­gether now.”

The ad­mis­sion from the No. 4 House Demo­crat — that his party lacks a clear, core mes­sage even amid Repub­li­can dis­ar­ray — high­lights the Democrats’ dilemma eight months af­ter President Don­ald Trump and the GOP dom­i­nated last fall’s elec­tions.

The soul-search­ing comes as Democrats look to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats nec­es­sary for a House ma­jor­ity and cut into Repub­li­can ad­van­tages in U.S. state­houses in the 2018 midterm elec­tions. Yet with a Rus­sia scan­dal en­gulf­ing the White House, a his­tor­i­cally un­pop­u­lar health care plan wrench­ing Capi­tol Hill and no ma­jor GOP leg­isla­tive achieve­ment, Democrats are still strug­gling to tell vot­ers what their party stands for.

Some want to rally be­hind calls to im­peach the Repub­li­can president as new ev­i­dence in­di­cates pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Trump’s cam­paign and the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. Demo­cratic lead­ers are re­luc­tant to pur­sue that ap­proach as it only en­er­gizes the GOP base. Oth­ers want Democrats to fo­cus on the GOP’s plans to strip health in­sur­ance from mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. And still oth­ers say those ar­gu­ments can be fash­ioned into a sim­pli­fied brand.

“The Demo­cratic Party needs to up its game,” na­tional Party Chair­man Tom Perez said in a speech last week. “What I hear most from peo­ple is, ‘Tom, we not only need to or­ga­nize, but we need to ar­tic­u­late clearly what we stand for.’”

For now, at least, Democrats are wag­ing a tug-of-war largely be­tween the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the GOP’s at­tempts to gut the 2010 Pa­tient Pro­tec­tion and Af­ford­able Care Act.

Sev­eral lib­eral groups that had been laser-fo­cused on health care have in­ten­si­fied calls for im­peach­ment in re­cent weeks, in­clud­ing MoveOn.org, In­di­vis­i­ble and Ul­travi­o­let.

“We need to be talk­ing about im­peach­ment con­stantly,” said Scott Dworkin, co-founder of the re­cently formed Demo­cratic Coali­tion Against Trump. He warned on Twit­ter, “If you’re an elected Dem & you’re not talk­ing im­peach­ment or 25th amend­ment then find a new party.”

But Sen. Bernie San­ders, a Ver­mont In­de­pen­dent with a fol­low­ing on the left, is fo­cus­ing al­most ex­clu­sively on health care.

San­ders, who cau­cuses with Se­nate Democrats, said in an in­ter­view that “there should not be a rush to judg­ment” af­ter emails re­leased by Don­ald Trump’s son last week re­vealed that Trump’s top ad­vis­ers held a meet­ing with a lawyer they were told rep­re­sented the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

San­ders sidestepped ques­tions about im­peach­ment, warn­ing in­stead that “many, many thou­sands of Amer­i­cans” will die ev­ery year if the GOP health care plan be­comes law. San­ders has hosted swing-state ral­lies fo­cused on health care in Ken­tucky, Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and West Vir­ginia in re­cent weeks and was in Iowa on Satur­day.

Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive Zac Petkanas, who led Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign war room, agrees that last week’s de­vel­op­ments in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion shouldn’t change the party’s fo­cus head­ing into 2018.

“Can­di­dates need to be say­ing the word ‘health care’ five times for ev­ery time they say the word ‘Rus­sia,’” Petkanas said. He added, “I think it’s a fun­da­men­tal mis­take to make this elec­tion a ref­er­en­dum on im­peach­ment.”

It’s not that easy for some elected of­fi­cials, like Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., who says con­cerns about Rus­sia have caught up to health care as a pri­or­ity among his con­stituents. He de­scribed the Rus­sian de­vel­op­ments as “a threat to our foun­da­tion of democ­racy” that de­mands at­ten­tion.

“Congress has to be able to walk and chew gum. We have to be able to do both,” Kennedy said.

Democrats are nat­u­rally play­ing de­fense given gen­er­a­tions of vic­to­ries that ex­panded the role of gov­ern­ment, from the so­cial safety net of Franklin Roo­sevelt’s New Deal to Lyn­don John­son’s land­mark civil-rights leg­is­la­tion to Barack Obama’s health care law.

But many Democrats out­side Washington in­sist they must go be­yond op­pos­ing Trump and his poli­cies if they ex­pect to make ma­jor gains in 2018 and be­yond.

“Democrats would make a mis­take if we thought pound­ing Trump and not hav­ing an au­then­tic mes­sage of our own is a win­ning strat­egy,” said Ohio Demo­cratic Party Chair­man David Pep­per. “The mes­sage of Democrats has to be about is­sues that mat­ter to peo­ple at their kitchen ta­ble.”

In South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete But­tigieg said Democrats don’t have to re­treat from their op­po­si­tion to Trump, in­clud­ing talk­ing about Rus­sia, but they must tie it all to­gether with a con­sis­tent theme that goes be­yond day-to-day news cy­cles.

“It’s very sim­ple,” he said. “We ex­ist to help peo­ple go about their lives, to pro­tect their rights and free­doms and op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Mean­while, Crow­ley said vot­ers may have to wait a few more months be­fore they hear na­tional Democrats’ new mes­sage.

“We’re all work­ing on that,” Crow­ley said. “We’re hop­ing to have this up and run­ning and out by this fall.”

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