The Democrat Challenge to Counter President Trump's Messaging Machine

PHOTO: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attends an opening news conference during the House Democratic caucus "Issues Conference" on February 8, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. PlayWin McNamee/Getty Images
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House Democrats grappled with one central question at their annual policy retreat here this week: How to create a message against President Donald Trump that wins back voters who abandoned the party in November.

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Democrats failed to strike a consensus, revealing ongoing tensions and frustrations with the party about the best way to rebuild and win back seats.

First there is the question of how much to talk about Trump himself.

On the one hand, Democrats are watching their young, active base take to the streets in opposition to the new president, and that is energy they cannot ignore. But plenty of Democrats worry that focusing too much on Trump could be a political trap.

Rep. Joe Crowley, chair of the Democratic Caucus, repeatedly called Trump the "great unifier," a common enemy, who was bringing people across the Democratic party together against him and inspiring this new era of civic engagement.

"He is the gift that keeps on giving," Crowley, D-New York, told reporters during a news conference at the retreat.

But one of the key takeaways from a deep-dive study of the 2016 election that was presented to members at the retreat is that the party too often relied on strategy of tying individual Republican candidates to Trump.

"If we just attack Trump, we're left with nothing," Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, said Thursday.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, echoed, "I don’t think that running on Donald Trump’s missteps is going to win. That didn’t work for Hillary."

As she has often repeated since the election, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said again this week that the problem for Democrats during the election was messaging around their own ideas.

"There wasn't that clarity of the message coming through so we could represent we were the party of the working people," she said.

But Khanna and other progressive members in the party argue it isn’t that simple. They contend Democrats need to spend time crafting a clearer, populist economic agenda, in line with the ideas offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign, in order to present a concrete alternative to voters.

“What is the Democrats’ bold economic vision?” Khanna wondered rhetorically, during an interview with ABC News. “People get that the Democratic Party is for the little guy, but that is not a bold economic vision where it is clearly rejecting corporatists past, being populist and future looking and aspirational.”

He argued the passion and energy in the party right now was with the far left and that he worries the party was looking for an all-inclusive “lowest common denominator” message to present that all members in the party, including more moderates, could get behind.

“I think the way to win is to be clear, to be bold, to be progressive, to look at where [Sen. Elizabeth] Warren and Sanders are taking the party and if there are 20 or 30 folks who are not onboard with it fine. But it is better to run with a bold, clear, contrasted vision of the future,” he said.

Meanwhile, speaking on behalf of a more moderate coalition from purple, swing districts, Rep. James Himes, D-Connecticut, argued Thursday that it was simply unrealistic to find the perfect, single unifying economic message that applied to constituencies from New England to Nebraska.

“We need to be really careful about convincing ourselves that the right answer is to have the perfect message. These 12 words that will allow us to win the presidency and the house, it is not the way it works,” Himes said.

Still others this week expressed frustration with the focus on economics all-together. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said thought the concern over economic messaging was “overblown.”

She argued that Trump himself never really offered a concrete economic vision but related to people on an emotion level. At times, she said, he appealed to racist or xenophobic ideas. Her answer, she said, is to engage with voters back in the districts as much as possible and rely less on consultants and polling data.