Ten top Democrats were selling a new agenda for their party Monday
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said combating Trump 'demands bigger, braver thinking'
The leaders of the Democratic Party drove more than an hour west of Washington on Monday to unveil the economic agenda that was supposed to help them win back the voters who have abandoned them in droves.
Minutes before they started, though, Jared Kushner – President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser – stepped to the microphones outside the White House to say he’d just told Senate intelligence committee staff that he did not collude with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
Just like that, the attention Democrats hoped their agenda would grab was lost.
And 10 top Democrats were left selling an agenda that was supposed to be a simple, crisp take on the party’s values – one speaker at a time, for more than an hour, in 90-degree heat – while being haunted by their biggest problem of all: How to command attention in the era of Trump.
Out-of-power Democrats have spent months trying to heal the wounds of 2016’s divisive presidential primary and answer questions about why white voters in suburban and rural areas abandoned them between 2012 and 2016.
“You look in the mirror and ask, what did we do wrong?” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
The party’s biggest fault, Schumer said in a shot at 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, “is not present a strong, bold economic agenda to working Americans so that their hope for the future might return again.”
He said that “too many Americans don’t know what we stand for.”
“Not after today,” Schumer said, optimistically.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said combating Trump “demands bigger, braver thinking.” Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said that “it’s not enough to just analyze and empathize” with voters’ problems.
“They don’t want a handout and they don’t want our sympathy. We all know that,” said Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos. “They simply want government and corporations not to work against them.”
Democrats made little or no mention of a long list of key issues – including immigration, foreign policy and racial and gender equality. Nor did they make the case for single-payer health insurance, the issue that energizes their party’s progressive base perhaps more than any other, aside from stopping Trump.
Instead, the new agenda is a populist turn for the party – one that underscores the influence of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was not on hand Monday, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was there.
It rages against corporations and identifies several specific bogeymen. Among those Schumer singled out: Pharmaceutical drug-makers, cable providers and airlines.
The idea: Those economic issues unite Democrats everywhere – while what critics call “identity politics” do not.
“The zip code might be different but the issues are largely the same,” New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said of the new agenda.
Drug-makers, in particular, came in for scorn as part of an agenda that also calls for Teddy Roosevelt-style anti-trust efforts.
“We are sick and tired of paying more than any country in the world and it has to stop,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.
The slogan – “A Better Deal” – was meant, Schumer said, to harken back to one of the philosophical underpinnings of the Democratic Party, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Republican critics noted just how closely the idea mirrored an earlier proposal from House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” agenda from the 2016 campaign cycle.
And the full title of the new Democratic platform – “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future” – evoked the Papa John’s pizza slogan: “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza.” The Republican super PAC America Rising sent people with pizza boxes that mocked both the Democratic agenda and Pelosi’s continued role to the event.
Beyond the messaging challenges, though, the bigger problem for Democrats continues to be their inability to break through Trump.
“When President Trump’s son-in-law is being interviewed (by Senate investigators) during concerns of meetings with Russians who hacked our American elections, that’s going to be breaking news,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview after the event.
“President Trump, his family, and his team are going to be part of the national narrative, especially with all the investigations and uncertainty taking place,” he said.
Luján’s advice for Democratic House candidates in places like Berryville – where the party hopes to unseat Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock – is “don’t get distracted by all that,” he said.
“Put your focus on a local conversation,” Luján said. “The national narrative will be what it is.”