Democrats are looking to recapture their status as the party of the people after working-class voters abandoned them in droves in 2016 — and see an opening with Republicans’ push to cut Medicaid and Medicare.
Top Democrats unveiled their 2018 slogan Monday afternoon, promising a “better deal” for working families as they look to frame up a positive agenda that can woo back the blue-collar workers who swung to President Trump last fall.
“Average families feel they’re being pushed around by large economic forces and are losing that traditional American faith in the future,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said at a rally with other top congressional Democrats in rural Virginia. “We are here today to tell the people of Berryville and the working people of America: Someone has your back. American families deserve a better deal so this country works for everyone again.”
The slogan isn’t exactly as catchy as “Make America Great Again.” But it’s being billed as a back-to-party-roots effort by Democrats after many blue-collar workers abandoned them last fall, costing them the White House and Senate.
Hillary Clinton won voters from households making less than $50,000 annually by just 12 percentage points, down from the 22-point advantage President Obama had among that group in 2012, according to exit polls.
But midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the party in power. And Democrats hope that Republicans have undercut the populist tone that Trump effectively pushed by moving to slash future Medicaid spending in their Obamacare repeal, gut Medicare in their budget and potentially give huge tax breaks to the wealthy in their proposed tax reforms while failing to move on infrastructure investment. They want Republicans to own Trump’s personal unpopularity without any of the benefit of his populist rhetoric.
“The more that people see what the Republican agenda would actually do, the more vulnerable they become to questions that they’re betraying the middle class on the economy. And health care repeal is issue number one in making that case,” said Jesse Ferguson, who worked on House Democrats’ campaign efforts from 2010-2014 and on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a senior House Democrat who is close to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), told TPM that “working families don’t believe that we understand the nature of their lives the economic struggle that they’re engaged in.” She said Democrats made a big mistake by focusing too much on cultural and personality issues at the expense of pocketbook ones 2016, allowing Trump to “jump into the void” with a populist economic message.
“Now people are rethinking that,” she said, arguing the Obamacare repeal bill and House GOP leadership’s budget bill show they’re “hell-bent to hurt the American people.”
This approach isn’t exactly novel. Democrats have been beating up Republicans for wanting to gut social programs for decades. Their warnings about Speaker Paul Ryan’s Medicare cuts weren’t enough to help them overcome a difficult map to retake the House in 2012 — or avoid sweeping defeats in 2014. But Democrats say voters are taking those proposals a lot more seriously now that they could actually become law.
“People undersell the extent to which Republicans obfuscated what their true agenda was for the last eight years,” said Ferguson. “The problem is that snake oil doesn’t sell once people see the snake.”
Republicans scoff at another ham-handed slogan, pointing out that the policies in the new agenda were proposed by Hillary Clinton last year: Tax credits for apprenticeships, antitrust rules and regulations on prescription drug prices.
But they warn that their party needs to tread carefully on entitlement reforms, admitting they don’t always sit well with the blue-collar voters that fueled Trumpism and gave Republicans control of Washington.
“The key to all of this is you have to have a good messaging campaign, explain what you’re doing, and I’m not sure Republicans are really doing that,” John Feehery, a Republican strategist who worked for GOP hill leaders, told TPM.
Feehery said during the 2005 debate over Social Security privatization, his Republican father had a clear message to him: “If you fucking touch my Social Security, I’ll fucking kill you.”
Many voters agreed. That push was the beginning of the end for President George W. Bush’s approval ratings, and contributed to the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats put their money where their mouths are in 2018.
While a number of red-state Democratic senators facing reelection are likely to campaign hard on pocketbook issues and protecting programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare — that’s how Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) got elected in the first place — House Democrats haven’t yet proven that they’re willing to invest big money in poorer, less educated districts that have moved sharply away from them in the last decade.
House Democrats spent millions in an unsuccessful effort to win a well-heeled open seat in Georgia even while they invested almost nothing in even more Republican, more rural districts in Montana, South Carolina and Kansas where Democrats over-performed expectations.
Schumer declared the question of whether they’d invest in rural or urban areas a “false choice” during the Virginia press conference, and some Democratic strategists like Ferguson have argued that focusing on more educated, upscale districts that rejected Trump is at least as important as looking to recapture the working class.
But populist-minded Democrats say that the renewed focus on an economic message is a big improvement over where Democrats were six months ago — even if it’s just talking points.
“Even in the worst case scenario that I don’t buy that this is lip service, the fact that they’re laying out this agenda shows they’re realizing they have to tell people they’re for something,” said Pete D’Alessandro, who worked on Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and is gearing up for a House bid against Rep. David Young (R-IA) in a district Obama won but swung hard for Trump last year. “Once you say it, you’ve opened the door. In a good way they’ve lost control of it now because people are going to be running on those issues.”