ATLANTA, GEORGIA - President Donald Trump is a unifying force for Democrats, bringing together disparate factions in opposition to nearly every presidential move.
But solidarity - at least for now - doesn't necessarily add up to a strategy that can help Democrats win more elections after a precipitous slide from power in Congress and around the country.
“We have been right and successful in saying ‘no’ when he wants to drive the Titanic into the iceberg,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Now, Inslee said, “we have to take actions that show we can drive in forward and not in reverse.”
The biggest challenge, several party figures said in recent interviews, is translating their opposition to specific Republican policies - Trump's immigration restrictions, nixing the Affordable Care Act, a promised tax overhaul and any changes to Social Security and Medicare - into a coherent explanation of what Democrats want to do for voters. The list ranges from anti-Trump protesters to the white working-class voters in the Rust Belt and other presidential battlegrounds.
“Trump has already betrayed a lot of the people who voted for him,” said Representative Tim Ryan, whose northeast Ohio congressional district is a traditionally Democratic enclave of union workers where Trump vastly outperformed recent Republican presidential nominees. “Those should be our people again.”
‘We can't just expect it to come to us’
Losing those kinds of voters helps explain why Republicans hold a 237-193 majority House majority (241-194 before five vacancies). Republicans have a 52-48 Senate advantage, with friendly congressional lines and a Senate election slate that will force 10 Democratic senators to face re-election in states Trump won. And the GOP controls almost two-thirds of state legislatures and governor's offices.
“We can't just expect it to come to us,” Ryan said. “We have to have an affirmative agenda.”
To be clear, many Democrats praise how party leaders, particularly House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have managed Trump's opening months. “It's inherently reactive” when Republicans set the agenda, noted Mark Longabaugh, a top adviser for Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.
“The biggest thing Trump and Republicans have put on the table collapsed in flames,” Longabaugh continued, referring to Speaker Paul Ryan's failure to win a health overhaul. “It's hard to imagine a bigger victory for us.”
Zac Petkanas, who recently departed from running the Democratic National Committee's Trump war room, said the same standard applies to Democratic opposition to Trump's nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, even though it resulted in Republicans changing Senate rules to get Gorsuch confirmed. “There is no electoral reason to give an inch,” Petkanas said. Backing a jurist “who doesn't represent our values ... would have been a betrayal to a base that is looking to fight Donald Trump,” he added.
Still, said Longabaugh, “there are large pieces of the party that don't get it, who don't realize the party has to address in a large scale way the economic inequalities in this country” with “our own policies.”
The question is how best to carry that message to places Democrats have struggled - basically anywhere outside large cities and in states between the East and West coasts.
‘Grassroots enthusiasm’ not enough
In Tim Ryan's Ohio, where Trump topped Democrat Hillary Clinton by 8 percentage points, state Democratic Chairman David Pepper agreed that Pelosi's and Schumer's steadfast opposition helps generate “grassroots enthusiasm” that he needs in upcoming elections. But winning them, he said, will require Ohio candidates who can explain policies on the ground.
That means it's not enough for new national Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez to tell voters, as he did recently in New Jersey, that Trump and Republicans don't care about them, or have Pelosi thank Republicans, almost sarcastically, for increasing the popularity of the Affordable Care Act by helping “people understand what it means to them and their lives.”
Democratic candidates across the country, Pepper said, have to explain to communities devastated by opioid addiction what the law means for treatment eligibility, how barring limits on lifetime insurance benefits helps cancer patients with no cash reserves, and how local hospitals benefit from expanding Medicaid government insurance.
Peppers said he's also working with Democrats in eastern Ohio to explain that Trump's budget proposal calls for scrapping the Appalachian Regional Commission and to champion Democratic proposals to spend even more on workforce training in the region affected by the decline of coal. And he wants to link Trump's “trickle-down economics” to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is term-limited in 2018, and the Republicans who run the Ohio Legislature.
Democrats will have new chances to draw contrasts and, Ryan argues, reclaim more working-class voters when Congress return from spring recess and takes up debate on infrastructure and taxes.
“The Goldman Sachs administration,” Ryan quips, will likely offer tax proposals tilted heavily in favor of large corporations and the wealthiest households.
If they do, he said, Democrats around the country should grab another chance to be more than the opposition. “How we got to be the Limousine Liberals and the Latte Liberals is genius on the part of Republicans,” Ryan said. “But I never forget the working class, so let's go reclaim the old brand.”