BALTIMORE — House Democratic leaders say their caucus is united, but even a minimal survey of lawmakers indicates skepticism of the messaging, an unclear path on strategy, and merely the beginning of grappling with what went wrong in an election that left them in the minority six years running.
“The mood of the members is very positive, open, confident, humble enough to listen to other ideas,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at the Democrats’ issues retreat here. “There’s a real, deep commitment to working families in our country and that’s what unifies us.”
Pelosi said the party must focus on sending an effective economic message for a system that works for everyone.
“While we fight that fight every day, we didn’t communicate that message in a way that was received,” Pelosi said, referring to last year’s election that locked them out of power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. “Never again will we go into an election where people don’t know that Democrats are there for working families.”
That message, though, might not be enough for all members of her caucus.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio said the reason Donald Trump won the presidency was not because he had an economic plan, but because he could reach enough voters “at a very different level — an emotional level, a racial level, a fear level, an anger level.”
Fudge, who backed her fellow Ohioan Tim Ryan in his bid for minority leader after the elections, said Democrats have been doing the same thing for years — and losing ground.
“This whole economic message thing is real overblown and I don’t think it’s accurate,” she said. “We have been losing blue-collar workers for years, 20-plus years, and our message has always been the right message.”
As part of their efforts to examine why they fell short and what to do next, House Democrats have commissioned a deep-dive analysis by Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York about what Democrats face in the current political landscape and what to brace for in 2018.
One of the first orders of business will be to reassess polling that was used in the 2016 campaign that showed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton winning the presidency. “Unreliable pollsters will not be invited back to the DCCC,” Luján said.
Fudge emphasized that the people who ran against the GOP grain should be first in line in gleaning advice.
“One of the things we have to do is stop listening to the consultants who continue to lose. At some point, we have to listen to the people who win,” she said. “Analytics, hopefully, is dead now in the Democratic Party.”
In assessing her own election, Fudge said the only way to determine why she outperformed Clinton in her Cleveland district is because people saw something in her that they did not see in the presidential nominee.
To find out why, Fudge said, members need to start on the ground instead of being so focused on advertising “that really didn’t change people’s minds.
“We have to build our party from the ground up and I think that we’ve not been doing that,” she said. “We just need to start again.”
From the perspective of Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, the retreat was an opportunity to do more than evaluate.
“We’re looking back; we’re looking at ourselves right now, and we’re looking forward,” the New York congressman said.
Part of the “right now” involves stepping back and taking stock of the turmoil emanating from the White House and in Republican districts.
A panel of committee ranking Democrats that oversees budget and the health care law said Republicans appear to be shying away from their promise to repeal the health care law because they are finding out how complicated it is to do so.
They are watching as Republicans like Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Tom McClintock of California squirm in their home districts as they get heckled about issues such as oversight of the administration, its court-halted ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and, most prominently, about overturning the health care law.
Another suggestion by Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, ranking member on the Budget Committee, was to send Democrats to tap those constituents in GOP districts “so that there is a sense of the fact that the Democratic Party on a national level cares about them.”
Given the varying approaches, Democrats said the issues conference was part of a process of determining their path forward.
For Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, just because Democrats take one approach, doesn’t mean they can’t take another.
“I don’t think any of those are exclusive,” the Maryland lawmaker told Roll Call. “None of them exclude doing the other.”