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How Democrats Can Get Their Mojo Back

How Democrats Can Get Their Mojo Back

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 8, 2014

For the past few years, the term “soul searching” has been associated with Republicans, as the party publicly struggled with internal divisions and bruising electoral defeats. But now it’s the Democrats’ turn.

President Obama’s party -- though many Democrats this cycle were loath to associate themselves with him -- took a monumental beating last month. Many labels have been applied to the defeat: a rout, a shellacking, a drubbing. But incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s blunt characterization was perhaps most fitting: Democrats suffered an old fashioned “butt-kicking.”

The fanny-kicking continued Saturday, when longtime Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu lost a runoff election to Republican Bill Cassidy. The loss of the last Southern Democrat was highly anticipated and doesn’t alter the makeup of the upper chamber, but it twisted the knife.

The party now is in wake-up-call mode. After the midterms, the focus on Capitol Hill quickly shifted to the now-routine budget showdowns that come with the threat of a government shutdown. With that task now complicated by Obama’s executive order on immigration, the spotlight returned to how Republicans would navigate the political waters.

But that shift in attention isn’t a respite for Democrats, who are preparing for life in the minority in Washington for the first time since 2006. Lawmakers and party strategists are busy both in public and behind the scenes assessing next steps, grappling with why they lost so badly. The Democratic National Committee announced it would conduct an election postmortem (similar to the GOP “autopsy” report of 2012), due to be published in February. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt is among those on the task force conducting the study.

Democrats also know they can’t wait for internal reviews. Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the party’s top strategists and the upper chamber’s chief messenger, made a bold first move by saying recently that the party, in effect, made a mistake by putting its energy into passing the Affordable Care Act in 2009-10 when it should have focused on the economy and the struggling middle class. Schumer’s argument may have been muddled by the ACA reference, as several party members have endorsed the decision to push for health care reform following Obama’s 2008 win. But the New York lawmaker, who is in line to be Democratic leader one day, voiced what fellow Democrats have been thinking. His concern about the party losing the constituency it claims to care about is real and shared by most members serious about getting back on track.

“We’re a party that professes to adore the middle class, but oftentimes that’s not returned at voting booth,” said Jim Kessler, vice president of the center-left think tank Third Way.

To many Democrats, the mistakes and missed opportunities are plain to see. The need for a coherent and cohesive message while keeping the caucus together is clear. But finding one that works may prove more challenging, especially as the party has varying ideas about its economic message. The progressive wing has become especially energized by a “fairness” message, and a feeling that the system is rigged against middle-class Americans. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has come to embody that sentiment, and the more centrist Hillary Clinton has taken notice.

Democrats are also faced with the challenge of inspiring members of its current coalition while rying to win back those who belonged to the old one, namely white voters.

Though the next presidential race is rapidly approaching, Democrats must also ride out this administration. Next month’s State of the Union address will be critical to congressional Democrats’ message and policy crafting.

While the official review is underway, here are five pieces of advice offered by strategists, pollsters and party members as the party searches for direction.

Talk About Things People Actually Care About

When the main concern among voters, according to exit polls, was the economy, top Democratic campaigns were focused on abortion, contraception, and running from the president. Despite signs of economic improvement, voters all over the country weren’t feeling it personally. Democrats failed to adequately respond to that anxiety, and ultimately failed to win votes.

“We saw elections where strong pro-choice women went to the polls and elected vehemently anti-choice Republicans because we are in this historic period of middle-class economic insecurity, where people’s paychecks are paramount in their decisions,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who ran House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Israel is now chairing the conference’s policy and communications shop, created in the wake of the 2014 elections. (Schumer runs the Senate’s equivalent.) Israel said he is in the process of interviewing members about solutions and messaging, and will meet with Schumer to exchange ideas this week. The caucus is focused on paychecks, Social Security, and campaign finance reform as major policy areas.

“Democrats could also try to change the conversation by saying not only do we need to focus on the issues that matter, we also need to focus on the metrics,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser to President Clinton. “Why aren't we talking about the incomes of middle-class families every quarter? ... People understand that average families still haven't recovered to where they were [before] the Great Recession.”

Agenda items like minimum wage, pay equity, income inequality and other parts of the so-called “fairness” agenda are good and valuable causes, Democrats say, but they don’t directly address the top concern that people have about their lives, and the lives of their children, getting better.

Friday’s jobs report, which showed an impressive increase in employment as well as an increase in wages, underscored missed opportunities for Democrats in 2014. “Democrats can’t be afraid to cheerlead the economic gains we’ve made, while also laying out new ideas, like a middle-class tax cut, that addresses the economic squeeze many people still feel,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist. “Our focus can never waver away from the economy, and too often it has.” 

Democrats spent so much time over the past election running away from the president and his negative approval ratings that they lost the opportunity to guide the conversation about the state of the economy. Strategists say Republicans were able to tap into voters’ economic anxiety because Democrats weren’t saying anything at all. Current events -- ISIL, Israel and Gaza, Ebola -- dominated news coverage and played into that sense of insecurity.

“There is an acute and historic middle-class anxiety, and the party that fully understands it and solves it will lead for a very long time,” said Israel. “Republicans do a better job than Democrats on bumper stickers. … The frustration that my colleagues and I share is that voters strongly agree with Democrats on most economic issues. But then, they elect Republicans because Republicans have messaged more effectively.”

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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