WASHINGTON – Democrats are heading into the November elections with an energized party base, an unpopular president to rail against and a growing wave of GOP retirements. Now they just need a clear message.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have zigzagged from digging in against President Donald Trump — even forcing a government shutdown — to trying to cut deals. They’ve played to their core supporters on immigration, only to shift quickly to the middle on spending. They’ve amplified news about the Russia investigation and dueling classified memos, at the risk of drowning out their objections to Trump’s economic policies.
A planned retreat to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to discuss 2018 strategy this week has moved back to Washington as Congress tries to pass a short-term spending bill and avoid another government shutdown.
But wherever Democrats confer, they must figure out how to make their pitch to voters.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden is to headline the Democratic gathering, whose theme is “United for A Better Tomorrow.” Earlier, the party had rolled out “A Better Deal” policy statement that included such traditional causes as a higher minimum wage, paid leave for employees and lower costs for prescription drugs and college.
Democrats still spend much of their time lambasting Trump, whether it’s his policies, the Russia investigation or his tweets. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry was unavoidable, even as Democrats insist they are offering an alternative agenda to GOP tax cuts and deregulation.
“It’s tough to ignore the elephant in the room. The Bob Mueller investigation goes to the heart of the Trump candidacy and presidency,” Durbin said in an interview.
Democrats also say they are united on talking about jobs and the economy.
“We need an agenda that speaks to an angry middle class that wants the government representing them and not just the Koch brothers and other billionaires,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats.
“There is an essential agreement on what has to be talked about,” he said.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is part of the House Democratic messaging operation, said he expected the retreat to “further develop an affirmative vision for how Democrats will improve the lives of the American people.”
Democrats humbled by Trump’s 2016 election felt growing momentum at the end of last year after winning the Virginia governor’s race and a special election for a Senate seat in Alabama, as well some down-ballot contests. They are feeling increasingly optimistic about the fall elections, particularly in the House, where they must flip 24 GOP-held seats to gain control.
In the Senate, Democrats are defending 26 seats, including 10 seats in states Trump won. Republicans are defending just eight seats as they try to hold their 51-49 advantage.
The beginning of the year has seen Democrats tussling with Republicans over immigration and spending. The immigration dispute led Democrats to force a three-day government shutdown last month that was settled largely on Trump’s terms. Progressives accused Democrats of knuckling under to GOP pressure without securing guaranteed protections for young immigrants brought to the United States as children and living here illegally.
Republicans and Trump are focusing heavily on their tax overhaul. Trump showcased the tax cuts in Ohio this week, saying, “Your paychecks are going way up. Your taxes are going way down.”
Republicans have targeted House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s comment that $1,000 bonuses resulting from the GOP tax bill are “crumbs.” They’re saying Democrats are out of touch with working-class voters who flocked to Trump in 2016.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York tried to answer that criticism Tuesday, saying Democrats unanimously opposed the tax overhaul because most breaks “go to the very wealthy,” big corporations and their lobbyists.
Republicans had their own slip-up over the weekend, when House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin highlighted on Twitter a school secretary benefiting from the Republican tax overhaul, then deleted the tweet after online criticism that he was cheering a paltry pay increase of $1.50 a week. Democrats rushed to slam Ryan for the move.
Democrats also argue they benefit because Trump is an inconsistent foil. They noted that during his tax speech this week, he accused Democrats of being “un-American” and maybe even treasonous for failing to applaud him during his State of the Union address.
Even as Democrats talk about the need to press an economic message, Russia is never far from mind.
As Congress considered yet another short-term spending bill to avoid a second government shutdown, Senate Democrats trooped to the Senate floor to attack Trump and other Republicans for what they called a smear of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. A Republican memo released last week criticizes the FBI over methods used to obtain a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign associate. Democrats have offered their own memo, which is under White House review.
Some Democrats stressed that anti-Trump was a winning message.
“There is so much antipathy to Trump where I live, that I don’t think you can (put) his name up enough,” said Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, whose Northern Virginia district is just outside Washington.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she doesn’t spend much time worrying about national politics.
“Frankly, I’m not really counting on the Democrats being able to help me,” said McCaskill, who is seeking her third term in a state Trump won by 18 points. “I’m counting on me getting out and listening to Missourians and talking about things that matter to them.”
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.