House Democrats Double Down on Populism

Israel and other House Democrats set up an "us vs. them" dichotomy with Republicans during their recent retreat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Democrats want to cast themselves as the populist superheroes of the 2014 election cycle, swooping in to defend the middle class against the villains of the GOP.  

"Whose side are you on?" they'll ask again and again between now and the midterm elections, suspecting that voters, when faced with that choice, will choose the Democrats.  

Huddling at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md., last week, Democrats facing a difficult midterm election cycle enthusiastically rallied around their recycled talking points, with a personal twist. Democrats are the party that cares for the poor, for women, the unemployed, the immigrants and the sick. And the Republicans? They don't, Democrats charge.  

Setting up an "us vs. them" dichotomy, the Democrats are highlighting populist agenda items that Republicans are blocking, such as a higher minimum wage, extended unemployment insurance and legislation to close the gender pay gap. “On every one of these issues ... we’re on the side of the American people,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York. “We’re going to continue to focus on this dominant theme. ... You can’t continue to defend the wrong priorities and the wrong values in front of the American people.”  

From the Hyatt Regency, Democrats took to Twitter to demand “equal pay for equal work” for Valentine’s Day, then passed out custom M&M’s emblazoned with messages such as “child care” and “women succeed.” They also previewed for members a 3-minute video called “What Does It Mean to Be a Democrat,” narrated by Georgia Rep. John Lewis that touched on the party's greatest hits — Social Security, Medicare and civil rights.  

They will try to force a vote on the House floor in the weeks ahead on legislation to raise the minimum wage — an effort that could be hurt by a new Congressional Budget Office report saying the measure could cost 500,000 jobs even as it gives 16.5 million workers a raise.  

Democrats also hope to press their advantage with women: “It’s not that [Republicans] ignore women — they denigrate them,” Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut told reporters.  

While members left their three-day sojourn invigorated by the prospect of pummeling Republicans along familiar populist themes, the GOP has been busy trying to play at least rhetorically on traditionally Democratic turf.  

If the 2014 messaging war wasn’t already under way regarding which party is truly “for the people,” it has now officially begun.  

Recognizing that they need to do a better job of proving their “compassionate conservative” credentials, the GOP chose a woman — House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington — to deliver its official State of the Union rebuttal. McMorris Rodgers herself has engaged in an outreach effort to traditionally Democratic voting blocs, especially Latinos.  

Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia has pushed a legislative agenda under the theme of “making life work,” scheduling floor votes on bills with names such as the SKILLS Act, Working Families Flexibility Act and Kids First Research Act.  

And the Republican Study Committee has expended manpower touting its anti-poverty task force spearheaded by Rep. Steve Southerland II of Florida and Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin delivered remarks on the 50th anniversary on Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.  

Late last year, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks told CQ Roll Call that Republicans needed to frame their movement differently, casting the free-enterprise system as “an act of global brotherhood.” Many members were already starting to do that, he said.  

Democrats will have to contend with that reality, Cantor spokesman Doug Heye said Tuesday.  

“Whose side were the House Democratic leadership on when they voted against job training programs, allowing hardworking families to have the same benefits of government employees and helping at-risk students?” Heye asked. “Whose side were Leader Pelosi and Whip Hoyer on when they fought to block the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, which 72 House Democrats defied their leadership to support and has Democratic support in the Senate? And whose side were they on when they voted against allowing all Americans to keep their health care plan they had and liked?”  

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed.  

“It’s going to be incredibly hard for [Democrats] to make the argument that they’re on people’s side when they’re advocating policies that are making life harder for the American people,” he said, citing Democrats’ advocacy of the Affordable Care Act and disapproval of the Keystone XL pipeline.  

In conversations with CQ Roll Call, House Democratic aides and operatives acknowledged that Republicans are indeed starting to change the way they message — but they consider it window dressing and suggest it won't work with voters.  

“On the issues that matter to the American people, we’re winning, because we’re on their side,” said a spokesman for the DCCC. He said Democrats have had their positions long before the GOP has begun its current messaging. "Republicans don’t have any credibility on any of these issues,” he said. A Democratic leadership aide said it would only become clearer and clearer whose side Americans are on: “This is just the beginning.”