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Democrats Unite Around Middle-Class Message, Israel Says

Israel says Democrats are behind the new "middle class" focus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

PHILADELPHIA — House Democrats are united around a new messaging strategy for the 2016 cycle, according to Rep. Steve Israel of New York.  

"Middle class, middle class and middle class," the chairman of a newly created Democratic Policy and Communication Committee told reporters on Thursday morning. Israel cited the results of a lengthy survey distributed to Democrats last week as evidence of a new intraparty consensus. The results were revealed to the caucus on the first full day of its three-day issues retreat here in the City of Brotherly Love.  

Only 90 members responded — less than half of the 188-member Vaucus — but he said participants hailed from a diverse cross-section of fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, moderate New Democrats, African-American lawmakers and progressives.  

"I was pleasantly surprised that 90 members took the time to fill out the survey in the short amount of time given to them," he said.  

Still, there are a number of legislative areas where House Democrats could split that could interfere with cohesion in party messaging.  

One is on trade and whether Congress should give President Barack Obama authority to enter into negotiations with certain Pacific countries. There are strong and vocal factions on either side of the issue, and both groups say that opposition or support for fast-track authority" is fundamental to defining the Democratic Party in the next cycle.  

Democrats are also struggling for unity on votes to roll back portions of their signature financial regulatory overhaul legislation known as Dodd-Frank, which caused something of an ideological war to break out in party ranks and threatened to sink the government funding bill at the end of last year.  

These real divisions exist as survey results — obtained by CQ Roll Call — indicated that the perceived No. 1 failing in the 2014 cycle was that the Democrats didn't consistently stick together or stand closely enough with the president and Senate.  

In his briefing with reporters on Thursday, Israel downplayed such friction, saying that on trade, most Democrats wanted to be able to support fast-track authority and on Dodd-Frank "you’re not going to see a critical mass of Democrats supporting those things."  

In the survey results, few Democrats said that the premiere talking point ought to focus on the Affordable Care Act, as more members of the party are beginning to acknowledge that the 2010 legislation is far from perfect.  

Israel dismissed the notion that Democrats would shy away from the health care law, saying that Republicans "repealing, repealing and re-repealing" of Obamacare "works with one tiny segment of their base — and nobody else."  

He also pushed back against the assessment that the 2014 message also appeared to be about the middle class, and the party still shrunk to the lowest minority the House has seen in nearly a century.  

In the last cycle, Israel continued, the message was more muddled: "We may have had too many messages," he said. This time, he said, talking points and priorities will be filtered through the "prism" of "middle-class mobility."  

It remains to be seen how that filter will work with many members intent on messaging on issues that don't fit neatly into that box.  

The Voting Rights Act is one of those. The 60th anniversary of the law falls this summer, as Congress still hasn't taken up a rewrite of the so-called pre-clearance formula the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.  

Assistant Leader and Congressional Black Caucus member James E. Clyburn of South Carolina said at a news conference Wednesday night that Democrats had to talk about that, along with other issues of equality that extend beyond economics: President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty," Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start were all made possible by Democrats, he said.  

But the survey results from the 90 participating members suggested that those weren't themes that should steal the spotlight on the campaign trail. Only six members listed "voting rights" as a "critical message priority," and just four assigned that label to "poverty." One member said members should message first and foremost on "housing costs."  

Matt Fuller contributed to this report.  Related: House Democrats Brace for Potentially Tense Retreat White House Helping Democrats Shape Message to Middle Class The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.