House Democrats’ agenda barely mentioned at convention as Pelosi forced to talk about Trump

Speaker prefers to focus on policies House is pushing

Speaker Nancy Pelosi addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention on Wednesday.  (DNCC screenshot/Getty Images)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention on Wednesday. (DNCC screenshot/Getty Images)
Posted August 20, 2020 at 6:00am

Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t often like to talk about President Donald Trump. She finds it a distraction from whatever policy message House Democrats are pushing on any given day. But the Democratic National Convention is not the speaker’s show, and the party wanted her to dig into the president when she appeared Wednesday night.

“I had a kind of a nice presentation, but they said that, ‘No, we want you to tell more about what it's like dealing with Donald Trump,’” Pelosi said Tuesday on a Zoom event with House members and candidates hosted by Elect Democratic Women, the political arm of the Democratic Women’s Caucus. “So what I said was, as speaker I know firsthand how disrespectful he is to women, whether it's our rights, whatever it happens to be.”

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Indeed, Pelosi’s convention speech was more about Trump’s failures than about House Democrats’ accomplishments — the opposite of the typical message she delivers in near-daily media and campaign appearances.

“As speaker, I’ve seen firsthand Donald Trump’s disrespect for facts, for working families and for women in particular — disrespect written into his policies, toward our health and our rights, not just his conduct,” the California Democrat said in her speech. “But we know what he doesn’t: that when women succeed, America succeeds.”

At the same time as Pelosi attacked the president, she also said House Democrats’ “guiding purpose” was “not to decry the darkness but to light a way forward for our country.”

Pelosi did talk about Democrats’ “For the People” agenda of lowering health care costs, rebuilding the country through green infrastructure investments and cleaning up corruption in government, which helped them win back the House majority in 2018. She worked it in by mentioning the bills Democrats passed and why they're not law today, summarizing nearly two years of legislative action in just a few sentences.

“We have sent the Senate bills to lower health care costs, for bigger paychecks, for cleaner government, protecting John Lewis' voting rights and enacting [the] George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” she said. “We sent the Senate bills to protect our Dreamers, LGBTQ equality, prevent gun violence and to preserve our planet for future generations — and even more.”

“All of this is possible for America,” Pelosi added. “Who was standing in the way? [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.”

President not on the ballot in 2018

Two years ago, House Democrats got to run on their own message. Knowing they needed to pick up seats in districts that Trump carried in 2016, they opted to limit their attacks on the president and focus on kitchen-table issues, with a particular emphasis on health care.

“Health care, health care, health care were the three most important issues in that campaign,” Pelosi said Tuesday at a Politico Playbook event. “That was before coronavirus, and that still remains the focal point for us.”

The strategy isn’t changing this cycle. Pelosi said her members are following the same framework, talking about issues like health care, jobs, climate and cleaner government. Those issues are part of the platform Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris are advancing at the convention this week.

“We will of course follow the lead and work — and hope they follow ours as well — with the Biden-Harris ticket and their message Build America Better and as their message evolves,” Pelosi said at the Playbook event.

Be bold and ‘non-menacing’

House Democrats’ plan to stick to pocketbook issues is arguably more urgent this cycle as they seek to defend 30 seats in districts where Trump got more votes than Hillary Clinton in 2016, and look for more pickup opportunities in traditional Republican territory with Trump at the top of the ballot.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Pelosi said at the Playbook event. “We're prepared to have our message be progressive and bold and non-menacing as we go into the districts that we need to win, as well as to help in other races — governors, statehouses and of course the United States Senate, and most of all, the Electoral College as to win the White House.”

Pelosi has used the “non-menacing” description before, but the Democratic National Convention so far has focused on numerous menaces. Several speakers, including Pelosi herself, have warned about the danger of another four more years with Trump in the White House.

Michelle Obama, the former first lady, said Trump “simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is,” as she warned that things will get worse unless Americans “vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.” Former President Bill Clinton said Trump will “bully and belittle” for four more years. And former President Barack Obama said Trump has shown “no interest in putting in the work” and “hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t.” 

Pelosi and House Democrats have a more personal objective in wanting to get Trump out of the White House. He and the Republican-controlled Senate have been an obstacle to their agenda.  

House Democrats frequently complain that they’ve passed a ton of bills only to have them languish in the Republican-controlled Senate. Part of their message in 2020 is that to finish the job they promised to do two years ago, they need voters to elect Biden and more Democrats to the Senate.

While that message did not feature much in the prime-time convention program, House Democrats joined other convention-related events like virtual watch parties to drive it home.

“President Biden and Vice President Harris will need governing partners in Congress,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos said Tuesday night on a virtual watch party for rural voters as she talked about the importance of protecting and expanding the House majority.

“We have candidates who will be leaders for rural America, working to turn red states blue, like Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas, Dan Feehan in Minnesota, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan in my home state of Illinois, and Rita Hart in Iowa,” she said.

Bustos offered a sample of the message she and other candidates are making in rural areas that are crucial not only to Democrats expanding their House majority but to the party flipping the Senate and winning the White House.

“Donald Trump has betrayed rural districts like the one I serve in downstate Illinois,” she said. “The people I serve had been whipsawed for the last four years of this chaos. They've seen Donald Trump abandon our rural hospitals as they continue to close an alarming rate. They see his incoherent trade policy, and now they watch it as he is trying to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service. And shame on him. Leadership matters.”

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On an Instagram live discussion with Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries the next day, Bustos said that going into the 2020 cycle she had thought it would be pretty tough for Democrats to pick up seats. But now she’s more confident about their chances because of “great candidates” who are raising a lot of money and messaging on health care and economic issues voters care about.

Bustos and Jeffries helped craft the For the People agenda when they served as co-chairs of House Democrats’ messaging arm.

“These are things that we talked about doing, and we went out and did as House Democrats,” Jeffries said. But he noted that the House-passed bills, despite many having some Republican support, were “sent to Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard.

“That’s why we need what I call a triangular alignment of interests by Jan. 20,” the New York Democrat said. “The House, the Senate and the presidency — a triangular alignment of issues and values.”

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