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White House Helping Democrats Shape Message to Middle Class

Kind is one of the Democrats championing more "aspirational" messaging. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The same day House Democrats are set to go to their annual issues conference in Philadelphia to discuss messaging for the 2016 election cycle, among other things, the caucus's new messaging group held its inaugural meeting on Capitol Hill.  

The newly minted, 16-member Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which was tailored specifically to be led by recent Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York, heard Wednesday morning from David Simas, the White House director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. "The polling and focus group data that Simas presented fortified what House Democrats already believe, mainly that this is about a middle-class agenda and the sense that the government helps out the poor and gives breaks to the ultra wealthy and corporations, but if you’re in the middle you get nothing," a source present at the meeting told CQ Roll Call in an email. For much of the 2014 cycle, House Democrats focused their message on middle-class voters and the extent to which the party was prepared to fight for them on equal pay for equal work, a higher minimum wage, tax breaks for middle-income earners and an extension of the expired unemployment insurance program.  

But Democrats suffered a major blow in the midterms in November, with their minority shrinking to the lowest it's been in the House in nearly a century, and now most members acknowledge  something was missing in the campaign trail talking points.  

How to hone the rhetoric will be a major preoccupation of the retreat in Philadelphia, with Israel set to reveal the results of a survey distributed to all members asking for their candid thoughts on the matter.  

There is likely to be some pushback against the "jump-start the middle class" economic agenda House Democratic leaders and the DCCC prioritized in the last elections — and appear to be still touting in the early days of the next, crucial presidential cycle.  

Reps. Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Jim Himes of Connecticut — the chairman and one of the vice chairmen of the moderate-leaning New Democrat Coalition, respectively — recently told CQ Roll Call Democrats should be highlighting a more aspirational message.  

"We have to have a more inclusive agenda that provides hope and opportunity for all Americans to realize the American dream," Kind said.  

"With a very diverse caucus, trying to appeal to an enormously diverse country, our message needs to take on pretty substantial different flavors based on who we're trying to communicate it to," said Himes, also a member of Israel's messaging group.  

Himes also suggested the middle class-centered message is not a "one-size-fits-all" model, a sentiment that Assistant Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., expressed in the days following the midterms. "I always say, my purpose in being in Congress is to increase the middle class, I want to enhance the middle class," Clyburn said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. "When I'm talking to a group of college students out there, the first in their families to go to college ... they're not in the middle class."  

Israel said last week he hoped the retreat would present an opportunity to hash out lots of ideas that the group can consider, with significant buy-in from members, in the months ahead. His task force is right now set to meet each Thursday going forward.  

“You can’t stand up on a stage and tell people what you think the message should be,” Israel said. “You have to reach out to them … and make sure your message is based on collaboration.”  

Related: House Democrats Brace for Potentially Tense Retreat Democrats to Complete Survey to Help Leadership With Messaging Van Hollen’s New Pitch for Democrats: Middle-Class Tax Cuts 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.