WASHINGTON – “The Democrats,” Vice President Mike Pence said recently, “have already settled on their agenda, and it can be summed up in one word: resist.”
He isn’t the only one with that view of Democrats. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 37 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party “stands for something,” while 52 percent say it “just stands against Trump.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, seemed to admit as much two weeks ago when it sent supporters an email with the proposed slogan: “Democrats 2018: Have you seen the other guys?”
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Now Democrats are trying to fix that – and not a moment too soon.
On Monday, I am told, congressional Democrats – in the Senate and the House together – will roll out a legislative policy agenda, their de facto 2018 campaign platform. The details, after months of haggling and cat-herding, could yet disappoint, but the broad outlines as described to me are exactly what the doctor ordered.
As important as what’s in it is what’s not. Democrats jettisoned social and foreign policy issues for this exercise, eschewing the identity politics and box-checking that have plagued Democratic campaigns in the past, most recently Hillary Clinton’s. This will be purely an economic message.
They also resisted invitations to steer the party toward the center (as pollster Mark Penn advised) or into a more progressive agenda. This is meant to be a populist manifesto that doesn’t conform to the left/right debate but instead aims to align Democrats with ordinary, middle-class Americans fighting powerful special interests.
Titled “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages,” it is expected to have many Democratic staples – tax increases on the rich, affordable college, infrastructure spending, higher wages, job training, paid family leave and the like – and a few new ones.
Hashed out over several months by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), and Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Cheri Bustos (Ill.) and David Cicilline (R.I.), it will be outlined Monday with a few sample proposals, to be followed in the coming weeks by more proposals, some to be introduced as legislation and some to be offered as Contract With America-style promises that a Democratic Congress would implement. Schumer told me in December that Democrats would have “five, six sharp-edged [policies] that can be described in five words,” although it sounds as if the plan hasn’t come out quite so lean.
The goal is to avoid repeating Clinton’s problem in 2016. She had so many proposals, and she scratched the itches of so many Democratic constituencies, that she lacked a coherent economic message.
Democrats have been little but the anti-Trump party lately, successfully fighting his legislative agenda and raising a ruckus about the Russia scandal and Trump’s other outrages. The danger is that an impression solidifies among voters that the party has nothing else to say.
As if to illustrate the point, 23 liberal House Democrats announced Wednesday morning that they were filing a “resolution of no confidence” in Trump. It contains no fewer than 88 “whereas” clauses (whereas “the embassy of Kuwait held its national day celebration at Trump International,” and whereas “Trump referred to United States Senator Elizabeth Warren as ‘Pocahontas’ “). The idea might work – if Democrats had a majority and if the United States had a parliamentary system.
A reporter asked Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), sponsor of the no-confidence resolution, if he was focusing too much on Trump over jobs. “Bubble-gum chew and walk at the same time,” he recommended.
Except Democrats haven’t been doing both. Some think they don’t have to, because polls show that voters prefer a Democratic Congress. But as The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Emily Guskin point out, more Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (65 percent) say they will definitely vote next year than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (57 percent). To boost Democratic turnout, the party needs to be more than just anti-Trump.
Even if it doesn’t help their electoral prospects, Democrats need a clear agenda so they can govern if they do win. If they win without a sharp agenda, they would end up where congressional Republicans are now: in power but without a popular mandate for their agenda.
On Wednesday, I asked Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), the No. 5 Democrat in the House, about the search for a unified agenda, and she bristled. “We’re not searching for an agenda,” she replied. “Democrats have always known what we stood for.”
They just did a really good job of keeping it under wraps.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.