In search of new ideas

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - @PKCapi­tol PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­

House Democrats are puz­zling out their next agenda.

You’re sure to get an ear­ful ask­ing a room­ful of House Democrats if they can win back the ma­jor­ity just by run­ning against Pres­i­dent Trump.

“No!” shouted Rep. Raja Kr­ish­namoor­thi (Ill.). “You can’t beat some­thing with noth­ing.”

“That’s not true!” Rep. Bon­nie Wat­son Cole­man (N. J.) bel­lowed at the same moment, agree­ing with Kr­ish­namoor­thi. “And peo­ple don’t need to be de­pressed even more than they are; they’re look­ing for hope.”

Two other Democrats nod­ded in agree­ment. “You even need me to an­swer that ques­tion?” Rep. Joseph Crow­ley (N.Y.) asked rhetor­i­cally.

That’s why Crow­ley, chair­man of the Demo­cratic Cau­cus, launched sev­eral task forces de­signed to come up with ac­tual leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als that will form the back­bone of the slowly emerg­ing “Bet­ter Deal” agenda of House and Se­nate Democrats.

Democrats say they need a pos­i­tive agenda to re­shape the way mid­dle-class vot­ers view their party af­ter last year’s dis­ap­point­ing show­ing, dur­ing which key Mid­west bat­tle­ground vot­ers em­braced Trump’s na­tion­al­ist eco­nomic mes­sage.

Crow­ley rolled out the task forces to House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and the cau­cus at Wed­nes­day’s weekly meet­ing. Their man­date is to take Democrats be­yond just cam­paign slo­gans — such as “stronger to­gether” or “I’m with her,” the two well-in­tended themes of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Their mis­sion is to re­port back by De­cem­ber with pro­pos­als that can be drafted into leg­is­la­tion and then for­mally un­veil them around the an­nual is­sues re­treat out­side Wash­ing­ton in late Jan­uary, a full 10 months ahead of the piv­otal 2018 midterm elec­tions.

It’s a far more am­bi­tious time­line than nor­mal for the mi­nor­ity party. The Repub­li­cans, in their suc­cess­ful 1994 and 2010 cam­paigns that vaulted them back into the ma­jor­ity, waited un­til just weeks be­fore those elec­tions to un­veil their agenda. The Democrats rolled out theirs a cou­ple of months be­fore the 2006 midterms thrust them into the ma­jor­ity.

But last year’s dis­ap­point­ment — Democrats gained just six seats de­spite much greater ex­pec­ta­tions — prompted a bit of re­bel­lion. It was the fourth straight elec­tion that left House Democrats in the mi­nor­ity and the 10th of the past 12 cam­paigns that ended with Repub­li­cans in charge.

The rank-and-file Democrats forced some changes in the lead­er­ship struc­ture and pushed younger mem­bers into po­si­tions of power on com­mit­tees. Th­ese new task forces con­sist of more than 20 Democrats plucked from mid-level ranks, rel­a­tive new­com­ers who do not oc­cupy top posts on com­mit­tees or in lead­er­ship.

Pelosi’s troops need to pick up 24 seats next year to claim the speaker’s gavel, and they know Trump’s un­pop­u­lar­ity gives them an open­ing to make a case to vot­ers to put them in charge. But Democrats saw that last year’s anti-Trump fo­cus came up well short and say they need some­thing more to sell to vot­ers next year.

The task forces first want to un­der­stand how mid­dle-class vot­ers feel, both in the econ­omy and to­ward pre­vi­ous Demo­cratic pro­pos­als. “We’re go­ing to do a di­ag­nos­tic work-up to look at this fu­ture econ­omy and what we need to do and what the needs are, so that we can fix this once and for all,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (Calif.), first elected in 2012.

In Crow­ley’s of­fice last week, the rank-and-file Democrats placed a large de­gree of blame on Clin­ton’s in­abil­ity to pro­mote an eco­nomic agenda. “We were not on track in the pres­i­den­tial last year,” Wat­son Cole­man said. “We lost our nar­ra­tive in the pres­i­den­tial.”

“I think we’re go­ing to avoid 18-point plans,” Kr­ish­namoor­thi said, echo­ing a cri­tique of Clin­ton’s in­abil­ity to ad­vance easy-to-grasp pol­icy.

But con­gres­sional Democrats have them­selves to blame for not fos­ter­ing a broader set of ap­peal­ing ideas the pre­vi­ous four years.

To use Ruiz’s phrase, the Demo­cratic “di­ag­nos­tic workup” in the 2014 and 2016 elec­tions iden­ti­fied stag­nant wages and un­der­em­ploy­ment as key prob­lems that eroded the mid­dle class. But the pre­scrip­tion — of­ten just a boost in the min­i­mum wage and pay eq­uity for fe­male work­ers — fell short with vot­ers.

It’s un­clear what the next steps will be. Crow­ley’s group is work­ing solely with House Democrats, leav­ing it un­cer­tain whether Se­nate Democrats will em­brace the even­tual leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als.

Kr­ish­namoor­thi, a pi­o­neer in the so­lar in­dus­try be­fore win­ning his sub­ur­ban Chicago seat least year, has a fix­a­tion on the gap be­tween the avail­able jobs in high-tech man­u­fac­tur­ing and the work­ers who do not pos­sess the nec­es­sary skills. He wants to get away from the “elit­ist” la­bel of be­ing the party of lawyers and steer more high school stu­dents into short-term tech ed­u­ca­tion so they can work in trades and other skilled jobs.

“There are too many at­tor­neys and not enough plumbers. There are too many at­tor­neys and not enough cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­perts,” said Kr­ish­namoor­thi, who is on the econ­omy task force.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), first elected last year, is push­ing for leg­is­la­tion to pro­mote clean en­ergy tech­nolo­gies that seem des­tined to dom­i­nate the 21st-cen­tury econ­omy. “We have val­ues that we es­pouse and that we need to con­tinue to cel­e­brate. It is not clean wa­ter, clean air or a strong econ­omy. They’re not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive,” she said.

The five task forces are fo­cused on eco­nomic pro­pos­als, with no men­tion of the cul­tural is­sues that some­times dom­i­nate Demo­cratic cau­cus pol­i­tics. Th­ese groups are sup­posed to work with se­nior Democrats from the com­mit­tees of ju­ris­dic­tion in those pol­icy ar­eas, but Wat­son Cole­man summed up the way many Democrats feel af­ter so many de­feats.

“Don’t let your feel­ings get hurt if some­one comes up with a bet­ter idea,” she said.

The goal is to craft sub­stan­tive pro­pos­als that ring true to the party’s “New Deal” roots of re­viv­ing the econ­omy — and to move away from catchy slo­gans such as “stronger to­gether” that sound nice but have no real mean­ing.

“Au­then­tic­ity, that’s how you get it, that’s how you get it,” Crow­ley said. “This ain’t Fifth Av­enue. This is the Demo­cratic Cau­cus.”

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