Democrats go searching for a message ahead of 2016

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Democratic Strategist Nancy Skinner explains the fight between Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and Warren’s anti-Wall Street stance.

WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Warren may have captured the imagination of the Democratic Party’s base, but many in her party worry that it does not have a message that can reach beyond its most loyal supporters.

In recent weeks, Democratic operatives have begun to voice concerns that the 2014 midterms made plain the limits of an approach that failed to reach beyond minority groups or those who are reflexively liberal. And yet what should come next is not yet totally clear.

“You have to answer the mail about what people’s concerns are,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, the preeminent liberal think tank and advocacy group. Democrats, she said, need to emphasize “an economic focus on 'bread and butter' issues that matter to people’s lives.”

For CAP, that will mean releasing a series of new policy ideas in 2015 to address “the middle-class squeeze,” as the group calls the cross-pressures created by rising living costs and years of stagnant or falling wages.

For Warren, the first-term Democratic senator from Massachusetts, that means talking about fighting for the middle class — and then standing up for her beliefs even if it means leading a rebellion against her Senate colleagues. Her pointed comments on the floor of the U.S. Senate last week, arguing that Citigroup and other big banks should be broken up into smaller pieces, galvanized and excited the progressive left wing of her party. But even as the calls for her to run for president are growing louder, she remains known more for what she is against than what she is for.

Being oppositional is something that unites the populist right and the left because of a now commonly held set of concurrent attitudes. While many Americans agree that economic prosperity is not reaching the middle class and the poor, most also don’t want more government. The public’s trust in the federal government has hit near-record lows in the past year or two, disillusionment that has been fed in the past few years by scandals at the Internal Revenue Service and the General Services Administration, and the disclosures of spying on Americans by the National Security Agency. That makes it much harder for Democrats to credibly propose a new course of government action, and hampers their ability to craft a compelling message reliant on using government for the common good.

“Taking on Wall Street and getting on the side of the people, that does well in focus groups, but voters also think government is too big and too intrusive,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant based in Florida who worked on the 2014 governor’s race there.  “We have to be cautious that the economic populism doesn’t come across as something that’s going to cost everybody more money. … Voters are not looking for more government and more taxes.”

In addition, many Democrats believe they focused too much on social issues in 2014. For example, in Colorado, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall focused almost exclusively on his opponents’ position on contraception in an attempt to win female voters, but lacked a bigger message and lost a state President Obama had won twice. 

Tanden said that while Democratic Senate candidates in New Hampshire and North Carolina “talked about choice … they didn’t just talk about choice.”

“[Sen.] Kay Hagan [D-N.C.] was pretty good talking about a women’s agenda that was economically based: paid leave, child care,” she said. “The unique opportunity of an economic message is that it addresses both traditional bases of the Democratic Party  African Americans and Latinos and single moms and millennials really want to hear about the economy, too  but also it reaches out to more working-class whites and people across the spectrum.”

Bill Burton, a former top campaign and White House spokesman for Obama, said he is also concerned about the Democratic Party’s relationship with white working-class voters. “Democrats are not worried enough about [them],” he said.

“If we’re not attentive to the fact that we have a massive problem with middle-class white voters, we’re not going to solve our problem,” Burton said. “I’m worried that Democrats don’t see the problem. … The Republican coalition doesn’t look like America. It’s mostly just white people. But the Democratic one isn’t looking like America either, because there aren’t a lot of white people.”

Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”  Latinos, blacks, women and young voters  “was impressive, but the next Democratic nominee is unlikely to piece together the numbers in the same way,” he said.

Schale said that Washington, where the political class resides and where political messaging is often birthed, is a bubble that has made it possible for Democrats to focus on things that are of secondary concern to many Americans.

“People right now are feeling so much pressure on their pocketbook, and Washington is so disconnected from the reality of their lives. It’s the one place that never felt the downturn. It always feels when I’m up there like living in an alternative reality,” he said. “I’m for legalizing gay marriage and all these things, but I think sometimes we spend a lot of time talking about them to people who agree with us, but in the end, those aren’t the things being talked about at the dinner table.”

If it were just a matter of shifting focus to economic populism, that would be simple. But Democrats are grasping for a way to tackle new challenges presented by a more complex, bottom-up economy.

“I was a Ted Kennedy guy. My idea of what liberal economic policy should look like come out of that experience, but a lot of those ideas are obsolete now or need to be rethought in context of this new reality,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic consultant who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

One high-level Obama appointee at a federal agency said that after spending time inside the federal bureaucracy, it was difficult not to conclude that government needs to be not only transformed, but smaller.

Trippi said he thinks Hillary Clinton could possibly bridge the gap between progressive and centrist Democrats, but that she will need to present “economic ideas that are different.”

But so far, Clinton has yet to make clear what her issue set would be and how she would craft a message that unites the left wing of her party with Democratic moderates. Republican consultant Karl Rove tweaked Clinton in a recent column that focused on her lacking a rationale for a candidacy, and the Wall Street Journal editors slapped a headline on the piece that compared Clinton's likely candidacy to the ill-fated 1980 presidential run of former Sen. Teddy Kennedy, D-Mass. 

And another troubling sign is that no one seems to know what these new ideas actually are or should be. The Progressive Change Institute last week launched an online poll to ask for advice from anyone who wanted to offer it on what “”big ideas they believe progressives should champion in 2015 and 2016.”

“The wisdom of crowds can help drive the national conversation,” the group said in a statement.

In their eagerness to promote news coverage of their exercise, the PCI emailed some of the press coverage to the press. But, apparently by accident, the first item in its list of press clips  a short write-up by the New York Times began with the words, “For those who think Democrats are devoid of ideas, now comes proof."