Promotions Give House Dems a Glimpse of the Future

The rise of the three DPCC cochairs—Reps. Cheri Bustos, David Cicilline, and Hakeem Jeffries—offer clues to the party's forthcoming agenda.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (right) talks with reporters as he walks to Democratic Caucus leadership elections on Nov. 28.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Dec. 10, 2018, 8 p.m.

As House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi posed with her newly elected leadership team last month, a proud smile plastered on her face, she made light small talk with the gaggle of press photographers.

“Here we are to say 'Hello' to you, show off our leadership team, and to say, ‘Let the transition begin,’” she beamed.

She meant the transition from Republican to Democratic rule, her spokesman later noted, but anyone following her hard-won path back to power could be forgiven for arriving at a different interpretation. That includes the people on stage with Pelosi—who has pitched herself as a “transitional leader”—the very people to whom the party’s seats of power will transition, eventually.

A small group of frustrated Democrats have cast the future of leadership as uncertain while they push for Pelosi to agree to an exit timeline. Yet the fact that Democrats elevated, in particular, the three cochairs of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee into the higher echelons of leadership shows that they are looking ahead to a future beyond Pelosi. It also illuminates the policy direction Democrats will head in the near term, according to members and congressional aides: the one the DPCC has laid out.

“The future of the House Democratic Caucus is beginning to come into focus as a result of the elections that came into place,” said incoming Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries.

Jeffries, along with his DPCC cochairs, Reps. Cheri Bustos and David Cicilline, were all promoted. Bustos will be Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairwoman, and Cicilline will occupy a new position as a chairman overseeing the three new DPCC cochairs. The public shouldn’t be surprised to see this group—along with Assistant Democratic Leader-elect Ben Ray Lujan and Caucus Vice Chairwoman-elect Katherine Clark—out front more often this Congress, even independent of Pelosi.

“I have no doubt that we will be in good shape not just for the next two years but the next decade. We’re in this for the long haul,” Bustos said. “We’ve got the right people in the right positions right now, and Nancy Pelosi and [Majority Leader-elect] Steny Hoyer and [Majority Whip-elect] Jim Clyburn will help people like Ben Ray Lujan and Hakeem Jeffries and I, and they’ll teach us the ropes.”

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Pelosi has already been doing so.

“Everybody there, everybody in that picture has been advanced and groomed by Nancy Pelosi,” he said.

Still, the friction caused by her long tenure atop the Democratic Caucus has also enabled these members to prove themselves in their own right. Until 2016, the DPCC was headed by one chair appointed by Pelosi. To win favor with her restive caucus, Pelosi expanded it to three chairs who are elected by the caucus. She endorsed Jeffries and Bustos for the roles, while Cicilline bested Pelosi-backed Rep. Matt Cartwright to earn his slot.

That the chairs of House Democrats’ messaging wing were elected rather than appointed mattered to members. And the three chairs set about meeting with every segment of the caucus, including individual members unaffiliated with identity-based caucuses, to craft a message from the bottom up, not top down.

“What we all three of us had in common is we knew this had to be a collaborative approach,” Bustos said. “We methodically and systematically met with every single one of our major caucuses—not to talk at them ... to listen to them.”

But it wasn’t a resounding success right away. In the summer of 2017, the DPCC released the "Better Deal," an economic blueprint crafted as a response to House Republicans’ "Better Way" agenda. Democratic members grumbled that it sounded too similar to the GOP alternative; existed only in response to Republicans, rather than promoting Democratic ideals in their own right; and semantically implied that Republicans’ agenda was good, while Democrats’ was simply better.

When DPCC members went back to the drawing board to craft their election-year message, this was fresh in their minds. They pared it down to three overarching themes with a tagline members thought was more catchy and self-evident: "For the People."

“There were people who didn’t love the Better Deal,” Cicilline said. “For the People was, I think, widely embraced by the folks because it felt more natural. What are Democrats for? We’re For the People.”

Candidates embraced the message, and Bustos, Cicilline, and Jeffries believe their leadership elections show that the caucus liked the way they handled their roles. It also shows Democrats will focus on the For the People agenda, namely lowering health care and prescription costs, passing an infrastructure-jobs package, and tackling political corruption. They are already on their way with an overarching anticorruption bill as their promised first act.

Cicilline said he will be communicating with incoming committee chairs to ensure their own committee agendas can be communicated through the For the People framework, too.

“We can’t be in the position of, ‘We got elected; now it’s time to get to work; we’ll see you in two years.’ We’ve got to be relentlessly communicating,” he said.

Interestingly, the agenda includes items President Trump has highlighted. In that sense, Jeffries said, it can serve as a policy blueprint if Trump negotiates with Democrats or a political bludgeon if he doesn’t.

“All three areas that we have identified as high priorities for the Democratic majority also happen to be issues Donald Trump has talked about during the duration of his candidacy and his presidency,” Jeffries said. “They have talked the talk. It’s time for the Trump administration and Republicans in the Senate to walk the walk.”

Keeping Democrats on message will no doubt be a challenge for the DPCC cochairs. But if they can do so, they will have proved the caucus’s confidence in them well placed.

“If we’re successful, if we’re good at it and get the job done … then we’ll have an opportunity to hopefully continue to serve in leadership,” Cicilline said. “As opportunities become available, I expect we’ll have a chance to compete for those.”

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