The Washington Post Sunday

Which voice among Democrats will rise to occasion?

- Dan Balz dan.balz@washpost.com

They have been asked before, but as the 116th Congress prepares to take power and as an indetermin­ate number of people are making decisions about running for president in 2020, these questions are more pertinent than ever: Who will speak for the Democrats and what will he or she have to say?

There is no shortage of voices or of messages in the aftermath of last month’s midterm elections. The challenge for the Democrats will be to produce someone whose voice ultimately rises above the others with a message that unifies a fractious party and, more importantl­y, offers some hope of the beginning of breaking down divisions in a truly divided country.

The question about the message comes in several parts. One part is the substance, in the bold strokes that many messages have lacked and in the fine details that mark proposals as credible and doable. Many Democrats argue they are not that divided on issues, that their difference­s are overstated by their Republican opponents and by the news media.

Perhaps that will prove to be the case. Perhaps elected Democrats will find their substantiv­e equilibriu­m and consensus without rancor. Perhaps they will land on the center-left rather than the farleft, as some establishm­ent Democrats say, though that center-left position will be more liberal by a considerab­le margin than what it was the last time the Democrats won the White House.

Whether that consensus finds popularity and enthusiasm among progressiv­e grass roots is part of the test that is coming. If the past few years have shown anything, it is that politics is played within party organizati­ons and outside of them. Many grass-roots progressiv­es who are not comfortabl­e exercising their political instincts inside the party will be looking to see where the newly empowered congressio­nal Democrats and presidenti­al hopefuls come down.

Another part, and just as important, is how to deal with President Trump, rhetorical­ly and stylistica­lly, at a time when presidenti­al politics in particular is about personalit­y, celebrity and other intangible­s.

Do Democrats want a fighter who will take on the president as directly as he has taken on all of his opponents and critics? Do they want a guerrilla warrior who can get under the president’s skin without engaging in a constant Twitter war with Trump? Or do they want a conciliato­r who lets Trump be Trump and seeks an aspiration­al and affirmativ­e message, at the risk of being pummeled by a president who has shown the ability to diminish every rival who has come at him?

In a few months, the Democratic Party’s leading voice will be Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who is on track to return as House speaker, presuming she gets over one last hurdle when the House picks its leaders in January. Assuming she becomes speaker, she will be front and center nationally because the energy in the party will be lodged in the Democratic majority in the House.

Pelosi can be viewed in two ways. She is a party leader whose favorabili­ty among the American people is netted negative, as polarizing nationally as she is skilled as an inside player. Second, she is someone who was the target of millions of dollars in negative ads during the midterm election that appeared to have almost no impact on the overall outcome. Republican­s sought to defeat Democratic challenger­s by demonizing Pelosi, and it didn’t work.

Pelosi, however, won’t be the only voice among House Democrats. There will be new committee chairs to be heard from, with big platforms from which to make news and define their party. They can elevate the party, or they can embarrass it.

Beyond those elected Democrats in Congress with seniority and power, the new Class of 2018 is big, diverse, robust and probably a new force. The newly elected Democrats are beginning to decide where to focus their collective energies, but they are determined to make their mark on the House, the party and the country.

Within that class, there are progressiv­es like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who has clear substantiv­e priorities that may not mesh with the leadership. She is skilled in social media and already has shown an ability to draw attention to progressiv­e messages and causes. OcasioCort­ez’s voice, and that of some of her colleagues, excite and resonate with the progressiv­e activists around the country who are eager to move the party further left and who are hungry to embrace a new generation of Democratic leaders.

Democrats had a big election victory last month, bigger than some people anticipate­d and bigger than appeared to be the case on election night. They won in no small part because Trump energized so many voters, especially women in suburban districts, who woke up surprised, distraught and depressed after the 2016 election and decided to come off the sidelines and get involved more directly and actively.

They also won, many of them say, because House candidates focused on health care — particular­ly the issue of preexistin­g conditions, an issue that left Republican incumbents vulnerable because of their repeated but unsuccessf­ul efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and on political reform; both issues are high on Democrats’ agenda for the next Congress. But lacking control of the Senate and the Oval Office, Democrats do not have the power to turn those ideas into law.

For a time, the new Democratic-controlled House will define the party. But the legislativ­e branch has rarely been the best platform for producing a clear and consistent message for a party.

Soon the Democratic presidenti­al contenders will begin to step forward, and they will compete with the party’s congressio­nal wing for attention. The field will be large, though in the end perhaps not quite as large as some of the handicappi­ng lists might suggest. Notable last week was the announceme­nt by two Democrats on those lists that they would not be running.

One was Michael Avenatti, the attorney who represents adultfilm actress Stormy Daniels and who caught the attention of some grass-roots Democrats when he suggested he might run as the brawler who would go blow for blow with Trump. The other was someone whose style is the antithesis, former Massachuse­tts governor Deval Patrick, whose approach has been low key and uplifting.

If Democrats want a fighter like Avenatti, there will be others to choose. If they want someone like Patrick, there will be others of that mold. If they want age and experience, they will have it. If they want youth and perhaps inexperien­ce, they will have that, too. If they want someone of color, they will have choices. If they want a woman as their nominee, they will have choices.

So there will be lots of choices, and what will separate the candidates one from another will not only be how much money they have, but also how skillfully they develop a message than can excite their party’s activists and also be credible and attractive for the general election. The question is: What is the message they want for the summer and fall 2020, not what is the message that sounds good in January and February 2019?

What might seem like easy choices will be anything but, as the candidates weigh appeals to specific constituen­cies — who will have competing priorities — while plotting a path to an electoral college majority, not just a popular vote victory.

Many would like to believe this is relatively straightfo­rward, that they can be all things to all voters, that they can easily bridge the progressiv­e activist base centered on the coasts or in the big cities with other voters in other places. The reality could be far different.

 ?? SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? The Democratic Party’s leading voice will probably be Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), center, who is on track to return as House Speaker.
SARAH L. VOISIN/THE WASHINGTON POST The Democratic Party’s leading voice will probably be Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), center, who is on track to return as House Speaker.
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