To counter ‘The Art of the Deal,’ Democrats are set to un­veil ‘A Bet­ter Deal’

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ED O’KEEFE AND DAVID WEIGEL ed.okeefe@wash­post.com david.weigel@wash­post.com

Com­pletely sapped of power in Wash­ing­ton, top lead­ers of the Demo­cratic Party now be­lieve that the best way to fight a pres­i­dent who penned “The Art of the Deal” is with an eco­nomic agenda that they plan to call “A Bet­ter Deal.”

The cam­paign-style motto, panned by some lib­eral ac­tivists as de­tails be­gan to trickle out ahead of the Mon­day roll­out, is de­signed to re­vive a party des­per­ate to win back at least some con­trol next year. The push comes months ear­lier than most cam­paign-year sales pitches be­gin — an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the need to shore up pub­lic opin­ion of the Demo­cratic Party in the faster pace of mod­ern pol­i­tics.

Demo­cratic lead­ers shared few de­tails to pre­serve sus­pense around the plan, which is sched­uled to be un­veiled Mon­day at an event in Vir­ginia’s 10th Con­gres­sional District, where the party hopes to de­feat in­cum­bent Rep. Bar­bara Com­stock (R). But some law­mak­ers, aides and out­side ad­vo­cates con­sulted on the new agenda said that it is ex­pected to fo­cus on new pro­pos­als to fund job-train­ing pro­grams, rene­go­ti­ate trade deals and ad­dress soar­ing pre­scrip­tion-drug costs, as well as other is­sues. It is also ex­pected to en­dorse long-held Demo­cratic prin­ci­ples, in­clud­ing “a living wage” of $15 per hour and al­ready un­veiled spend­ing plans for in­fra­struc­ture that would ex­pand broad­band In­ter­net ac­cess into ru­ral coun­ties.

The roll­out comes as Democrats con­tinue to strug­gle to sell a co­her­ent mes­sage to vot­ers. In a re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News poll, 37 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said that the party “cur­rently stands for some­thing,” while 52 per­cent said it “just stands against Trump.” The same poll found that Trump’s over­all ap­proval rat­ing has de­te­ri­o­rated to 36 per­cent — mak­ing him the most un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent of the mod­ern era at this point in his pres­i­dency.

Those find­ings res­onate with party lead­ers who are still stunned by Trump’s come-from-be­hind vic­tory last year.

“When you lose to some­body who has 40 per­cent pop­u­lar­ity, you don’t blame other things — Comey, Rus­sia — you blame your­self,” Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an in­ter­view pre­view­ing the new plan. “So what did we do wrong? Peo­ple didn’t know what we stood for, just that we were against Trump. And still be­lieve that.”

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed, ex­plain­ing in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view that the new fo­cus “is not a course cor­rec­tion, but it’s a pre­sen­ta­tion cor­rec­tion.”

But out­side of Wash­ing­ton, some pro­gres­sives worry that a fo­cus on mes­sag­ing has con­vinced Democrats that their poli­cies were in no need of a re­think, while vot­ers were cry­ing out for more.

Many Democrats have watched with frus­tra­tion for years as Repub­li­cans in Congress neatly pack­aged their pol­icy pro­pos­als with catchy slo­gans and sleekly pro­duced on­line videos fronted by younger, tele­genic law­mak­ers crisply de­liv­er­ing cam­paign prom­ises.

Dur­ing the 2010 con­gres­sional cam­paign cy­cle that swept Repub­li­cans backed by the tea party into power, they were led by ris­ing stars, in­clud­ing fu­ture House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and fu­ture House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). As House Bud­get Com­mit­tee chair­man, Ryan starred in on­line videos that broke down com­plex plans into sim­ple sound bites. More re­cently as speaker, Ryan and his cau­cus have em­braced the “A Bet­ter Way” agenda that in­cludes con­ser­va­tive pro­pos­als to re­vamp poverty pro­grams, health care and taxes, plus a hawk­ish na­tional se­cu­rity stance. Last year, the plank was seen as a way to dis­tance con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans from Trump.

“Repub­li­cans talk in head­lines; Democrats speak in fine print,” con­ceded Rep. Ha­keem Jef­fries (D-N.Y.), who co-chaired a team of House law­mak­ers tasked with lead­ing the re­vamp. “That ends this week. We’re go­ing to make sure that we’re able to reach the Amer­i­can peo­ple in a clear and com­pelling fashion.”

“A Bet­ter Deal: Bet­ter Jobs, Bet­ter Wages, Bet­ter Fu­ture” is the new slo­gan hatched af­ter months of strat­egy ses­sions on Capi­tol Hill and late-night din­ners at Wash­ing­ton restau­rants hosted by Schumer, Pelosi, Jef­fries and other rank-and-file House and Se­nate law­mak­ers.

Stephanie Kel­ton, a for­mer eco­nom­ics ad­viser to Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.), said that she was con­sulted as Democrats crafted “A Bet­ter Deal.” Party lead­ers, she said, seemed to un­der­stand that “es­tab­lish­ment eco­nom­ics just can’t ac­com­mo­date a bold, pro­gres­sive eco­nomic plat­form.” She said that meant wor­ry­ing less about the deficit and more about whether vot­ers were see­ing their qual­ity of life im­prove.

Trump “is us­ing the bud­get to serve a hand­ful of bil­lion­aires and large cor­po­ra­tions,” Kel­ton said in an email. “I’d like to see the Democrats prac­tice their own ver­sion of this by talk­ing al­ways (and only) about how their poli­cies will mean­ing­fully im­prove life for the rest of us.”

Rep. Cheri Bus­tos (D-Ill.), who with Jef­fries and Rep. David N. Ci­cilline (D-R.I.) co-chaired the House’s work on the new agenda, said that there will be lit­tle men­tion of what has be­come all-con­sum­ing in Wash­ing­ton: Trump and the in­ves­ti­ga­tions em­broil­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Dur­ing con­ver­sa­tions with vot­ers back home, “not one has brought up Rus­sia to me, not one has brought up im­peach­ment,” said Bus­tos, who rep­re­sents a north­west­ern Illi­nois district that voted over­whelm­ingly for Trump. “We have to fig­ure out this heart­land mes­sag­ing if we’re go­ing to get to 218 mem­bers of Congress by 2018.”

Jef­fries agreed, re­count­ing that dur­ing town-hall meet­ings across his district, which cuts across much of Brook­lyn, “it was all about pock­et­book is­sues, hous­ing chal­lenges, crime, pub­lic safety, fail­ures of the pub­lic schools,” he said. “It was an en­light­en­ing mo­ment for me. Be­cause we spend so much time with what I think all of us do view as an ex­is­ten­tial threat to our democ­racy — what’s go­ing on at 1600 Pennsylvania Av­enue.”

To win back the House, Democrats will need to win at least 24 new seats next year — a mar­gin that in­de­pen­dent, non­par­ti­san ob­servers be­lieve is in reach if Trump’s ap­proval rat­ing re­mains low and Repub­li­cans fail to en­act sig­na­ture cam­paign prom­ises, in­clud­ing re­peal­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act and en­act­ing a tax over­haul. Demo­cratic gains in the Se­nate will be harder as the party needs to de­fend 25 seats and is only ex­pected to mount com­pet­i­tive races against Repub­li­can in­cum­bents from Ari­zona and Ne­vada.

Whether can­di­dates in swing dis­tricts will em­brace a cam­paign bat­tle plan drawn up in Wash­ing­ton is un­clear.

Schumer said the new agenda “is not about mov­ing the party left or right, and it’s not about ap­peal­ing to one coali­tion or an­other. A strong, sharp-edged, pop­ulist, bold eco­nomic mes­sage ap­peals to the Obama coali­tion and the peo­ple who voted for Trump — for­mer Democrats who voted for Trump.”

Grum­blings about the “Bet­ter Deal” plan be­gan late last week when a re­porter for the news web­site Vox tweeted that Democrats’ mes­sag­ing would in­clude some fo­cus-group lan­guage — “bet­ter skills, bet­ter jobs, bet­ter wages” — first used by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). The re­porter later deleted the tweet, but the news tweaked left-wing crit­ics who be­gan tear­ing apart the al­leged slo­gan, sug­gest­ing that “bet­ter skills” was an in­sult to work­ers — and that the “bet­ter” for­mu­la­tion evoked the slo­gan of Papa John’s Pizza.

“Please God some­one tell me this is not real,” Tommy Vi­etor, a for­mer spokesman for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, tweeted at the news, adding later: “Fire the con­sul­tant who cre­ated it right now.

But Schumer es­pe­cially is ex­cited by the new fo­cus, vow­ing that it’s an ex­pres­sion “that ev­ery­one will use — a bet­ter deal for work­ers, a bet­ter deal for women, a bet­ter deal for pre­scrip­tion-drug buy­ers.”

That con­struc­tion — sim­i­lar to the pizza slo­gan — is what wor­ries some lib­eral crit­ics. But the Se­nate leader is con­vinced that it will work.

“Part of this is its us­abil­ity, its rep­e­ti­tion and its re­la­tion to both the New Deal and a bet­ter deal than Trump,” Schumer said. “He’s sup­posed to be a deal­maker; he’s not very good at that.” Scott Cle­ment con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) es­pe­cially is ex­cited about the new fo­cus.

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