United House Democrats Return to Squabbling Ways

One day after big victory, Democrats resume public intra-party fight over messaging and strategy

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) applauds as U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who is up for re-election in Virginia's 11th Congressional district, waves to the crowd during a Get Out the Vote rally for Democratic candidates, November 3, 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia. Connolly has held his seat since 2008.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
March 4, 2015, 1:25 p.m.

Less than a day after their party’s uni­fied vic­tory lap on a Cap­it­ol Hill fund­ing battle, a hand­ful of House Demo­crats went back to life as usu­al, spar­ring with their fel­low lib­er­als over eco­nom­ic mes­saging and cam­paign strategies.

At a press con­fer­ence, a group of cent­rist law­makers went off-script to cri­ti­cize the party’s 2014 strategy — and also pushed back on the mes­sage of in­come in­equal­ity and eco­nom­ic fair­ness cham­pioned by lib­er­al hero Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren.

Mean­while, out­side the room, staffers from the Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee handed out pamph­lets cri­ti­ciz­ing the activ­it­ies in­side.

Mem­bers of the New Demo­crat Co­ali­tion, a 46-strong group of cent­rist rep­res­ent­at­ives, briefed re­port­ers on their Amer­ic­an Prosper­ity Agenda — a broad-stroke out­line of policies such as fix­ing the tax code, in­vest­ing in in­fra­struc­ture, and im­prov­ing edu­ca­tion. The ideas them­selves are likely to ruffle few feath­ers, but a few of the mem­bers went off-script dur­ing the press con­fer­ence to cri­ti­cize Demo­crat­ic mes­saging dur­ing the 2014 elec­tions.

Without men­tion­ing War­ren by name, mem­bers re­peatedly said Demo­crats need to fo­cus on grow­ing the eco­nomy be­fore look­ing to ideas such as Wall Street re­form and the min­im­um wage.

“It’s about eco­nom­ic growth, and a lot less about eco­nom­ic griev­ance,” said Rep. Gerry Con­nolly of Vir­gin­ia. “We’re the fu­ture. If our party wants to grow, it’s with this kind of eco­nom­ic mes­saging.”

“Demo­crats are at our low­est level since Her­bert Hoover,” said Rep. Scott Peters of Cali­for­nia. “Demo­crat­ic turnout was even lower than many ex­pec­ted in an off-year. It’s clear that the plans and po­s­i­tions that our party was of­fer­ing wer­en’t com­pel­ling enough to get our own core con­stitu­en­cies out the house to vote. “… We have to be present­ing a for­ward-look­ing plan for eco­nom­ic growth.”

Wash­ing­ton state’s Denny Heck was even more spe­cif­ic. “Prosper­ity can come if, and only if, we in­crease our eco­nom­ic growth rate by a great­er per­cent­age than is pro­jec­ted,” he said. “GDP is pro­jec­ted to grow by about 2.5 per­cent. You can’t solve is­sues of eco­nom­ic in­justice at that rate, be­cause the truth is that leaves an out­put gap of hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars.”

The New Demo­crats’ lead­er, Rep. Ron Kind of Wis­con­sin, was less will­ing to dive in­to mes­saging battles, but he con­ceded that the Demo­crat­ic mes­sage “didn’t res­on­ate with the Amer­ic­an voters, at least those who showed up. As a party, we re­cog­nize we have to be more ex­pans­ive, more in­clus­ive, more as­pir­a­tion­al.”

Out­side the event, staffers from the PCCC — an out­side group that en­dorsed 11 cur­rent House Demo­crats dur­ing the 2014 cycle — handed out fli­ers bash­ing the New Demo­crat­ic Co­ali­tion as “Wall Street Demo­crats” and blam­ing their un­will­ing­ness to back pro­gress­ive re­forms as the cause of 2014’s losses. The pamph­let also ques­tioned the in­volve­ment of cent­rist think tank Third Way in craft­ing their agenda, while name-check­ing sev­er­al of War­ren’s policy po­s­i­tions.

Des­pite the groups’ open dis­pute, a House Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide said the dus­tup was not a re­flec­tion of ma­jor dis­cord with­in the party — whose mem­bers ban­ded to­geth­er last week to block a three-week fund­ing bill for the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment, ul­ti­mately for­cing House Speak­er John Boehner to bring a full-year fund­ing bill to the floor.

The aide in­sisted that the cent­rists who spoke up mis­takenly be­lieved War­ren’s mes­sage had been ap­plied to all party strategy.

“We nev­er used the words ‘in­come in­equal­ity,’ ” the aide said. “Where you can win seats, that was nev­er the mes­sage that people were asked to say. Wall Street re­form was nev­er one of the is­sues that people were asked to talk about either. “… There’s a con­fla­tion prob­lem with all of this. They’re com­plain­ing about Eliza­beth War­ren and that’s it.”

The aide would not spec­u­late on why the mem­bers chose to make a pub­lic is­sue of their frus­tra­tions. “You’d have to ask them why they chose to do that,” the aide said, adding that Demo­crats’ 2014 mes­saging was craf­ted “at many, many caucus meet­ings that Gerry Con­nolly did not show up for.”

Re­gard­less of his at­tend­ance re­cord, Con­nolly had plenty to say about party strategy, ar­guing that Demo­crats talked little about the re­cov­er­ing eco­nomy and in­stead fo­cused on wage growth, which has yet to bounce back. “Demo­crats stepped on their own good news,” he said. “You look at al­most every met­ric of eco­nom­ic growth, and it was im­prov­ing rather sig­ni­fic­antly, with one ex­cep­tion — wage growth. And we fo­cused on that.”

Mean­while, an aide for the New Demo­crat Co­ali­tion said the group’s agenda was in­ten­ded to unite the party, not­ing that House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoy­er had sent out press re­leases prais­ing its goals. “Ninety-five per­cent of what’s in there is stuff that pro­gress­ives can em­brace,” he said, adding that the “in­cen­di­ary stuff” that came out in the press con­fer­ence “is not ne­ces­sar­ily where the group is at as a whole.”

He ad­ded that his group has come un­der at­tack from the far left, while do­ing little to re­turn fire. “You didn’t hear us com­ing out and cas­tig­at­ing the people who are at­tack­ing us on this,” he said. “This is a fight in which one side is punch­ing, and the oth­er side is try­ing to bring people to­geth­er. “… Here we’re talk­ing about in­vest­ing in edu­ca­tion — and, some­how, we’re cor­por­ate hacks.”

Des­pite linger­ing dis­putes over elect­or­al strategy, the lead­er­ship aide said House Demo­crats can still be coun­ted on to unite when a frac­tured GOP tries to push through le­gis­la­tion that tar­gets core pro­gress­ive val­ues, such as im­mig­ra­tion and health care. “In terms of our caucus, every­body’s on the same page,” he said. “They def­in­itely all were very happy about how DHS turned out. “… It’s clear evid­ence that [Re­pub­lic­ans] can­not get ex­traneous mat­ters at­tached to bills and think they’re go­ing to ac­com­plish that.”

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