On Baltimore retreat, Congressional Democrats look to the past to inform the future

On their annual retreat, House Democrats will conduct an election post-mortem. Observers suggest it may hold hints for achieving their primary aim: getting back into government.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, joined by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., left, and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., criticizes President Donald Trump's pro-Wall Street policies during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Monday. Congressional Democrats are heading to a retreat in Baltimore, where they will discuss their approach to President Trump and his policies.

Throughout the 2016 election campaign and into the first weeks of President Trump’s presidency, Democrats have struggled to find a united voice and articulate a clear vision for the country. But Congressional Democrats’ annual retreat may provide a start.

On Wednesday, Democratic members of the House of Representatives head to Baltimore to begin the retreat. Over the next few days, they will participate in an election post-mortem with the leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), with a focus on why the Democrats failed to pick up as many seats in the House as they predicted. On Saturday afternoon, the candidates for chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will lay out their visions for the future of the party. 

And while the tone will be lightened by celebrities like basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and TV personality Chelsea Handler, the primary focus will be on crafting a strategy that will carry the Democrats through the first year of the Trump presidency and put them on the path to victory in 2018.

Though observers caution against expecting too much from the retreat itself, understanding why the party lost in 2016 may provide hints as to how to tackle the next four years.

“It’s my sense … that Hillary Clinton’s failings were not her policy positions per se but the way she is viewed in society … and a campaign her people ran that was far more focused on disparaging Trump’s fitness for office than her own [policies],” explains Josh Pasek, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, in a phone conversation with The Christian Science Monitor.

Following a hard-fought primary election campaign that pitted Secretary Clinton’s centrism against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ progressive platform, the Clinton campaign struggled to rally Democrats around the nominee. Framing Clinton’s candidacy in opposition to Mr. Trump may therefore have been a logical strategy.

And with Republicans in control of all three branches of government, it’s a strategy Democrats might be tempted to deploy again. In the weeks since Trump has taken office, he has galvanized the Democratic base, spurring “unprecedented” political engagement, according to Matt Dallek, associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, DC. And that mobilization is likely to continue, he suggests. 

“Everything that goes wrong – every job that isn’t created, every counterterrorism raid that is botched, every executive order that is challenged – that’s all on the opposition party,” Professor Dallek notes.

And just as objections to the Obama stimulus powered the Tea Party to victory in 2010, the opposition to Trump could conceivably be channeled into winning seats, a challenge for the party at all levels, he points out. The 2016 election has already encouraged many young progressive women to go into politics at the local level, the Monitor’s Story Hinckley reported last week.

But Clinton’s struggles may indicate that more than this negative framing is required to win an election, suggests Gary Nordlinger, a political strategist who is now a professional in residence at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

“Pretty much her whole campaign [was] 'Donald Trump is too scary, he’s too divisive, he doesn’t have the temperament to be president,'” Mr. Nordlinger tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “It wasn’t a vision that included the people that are getting left behind by the global economy.”

To win voters back, he suggests, Democrats “have to hear Americans’ concerns and really listen.” As Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running for DNC chair, noted, the issues that Trump pushed during the campaign provide a good starting-point for places where Democrats could be retooling their policies.

“Trump banging on … trade, infrastructure and jobs helped him convince people of all colors that he might be somebody they can vote for,” Rep. Ellison said, according to Roll Call. “He’s already disappointed them, but the fact that he could get them to believe that demonstrates what we need to do.”

In other words, Democrats need to be able to counter Trump’s policies with workable alternatives, making themselves more appealing to Trump voters in the event that his policies fail. But finding compelling policies will take time, Nordlinger points out, so people shouldn’t expect Democrats to come away from the Baltimore retreat with a full-fledged party platform.

One place to start could be working with President Trump and Congressional Republicans. A new Morning Consult poll indicates that 59 percent of self-identified independents hoped to see cooperation in order to get things done. But that could end up alienating the base, the poll found, as just 34 percent of Democrats wanted to work with the administration.

All in all, it may be too early for Democrats to know what approach to take in the next election, says Professor Pasek of Michigan.

“I think the classic question that you ask is: What combination of persuasion and mobilization is going to get my party to outvote the other party?” he says. 

Historically, he explains, party lines have been clearly drawn, making it easy to choose policies. But Trump isn’t a traditional conservative, and it’s too early to tell how his administration will shape up. With that in mind, the Democrats need to be able to appeal to their base if Trump takes a centrist approach, while pushing policies with centrist appeal if he tends more toward the right wing.

“It’s good to get started early … but actually picking a route in terms of responding to Trump is probably premature,” Pasek suggests.

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