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In Messaging War, House Dems Face Goliath in Trump

House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi

 

February 09, 2017 | by James Arkin

BALTIMORE –The hail of tweets, executive orders and announcements from the White House in President Trump’s first two weeks in office drew a uniform reaction from House Democrats: opposition and outrage.

But in the age of Trump, when news moves at a stunning pace and can change on a dime, Democrats are searching for the most effective way to push back. The topic dominated discussion as House Democrats opened their annual retreat here Monday.

Unlike their counterparts in the Senate, Democrats in the lower chamber don’t have many legislative ways to fight against the White House and congressional Republicans. They can release bills, but they’re unlikely to ever get a vote. They can send letters or call for hearings, but they can’t schedule them. And they don’t consider or vote on Trump’s Cabinet or Supreme Court nominees. That means Democrats’ most potent weapon will be their messaging.

They’ve tried to keep a high profile in opposing the new president. They threw up their arms in outrage at his executive order banning immigration from several majority-Muslim countries and temporarily halting the refugee program, and rushed to airports and protest marches to stay in the thick of the action. They’ve also pointed out examples of how the Affordable Care Act, which is on the GOP chopping block, has been a success. But those are just two of dozens of areas where Democrats have tried to make their voices heard.

“It’s hard to believe as we sit here we’re only two-and-a-half weeks into this administration because … literally, one day gets worse than the day before,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, one of the co-chairs of Democrats’ messaging committee. “It’s an adjustment, there’s no doubt about it.”

Bustos and several other members of the Democrat Caucus told RealClearPolitics it’s been a challenge to effectively push back each time Trump does something they oppose. For the most part, their efforts are focused on three things: making sure to string together the day-to-day minutiae to paint a picture of Trump as erratic and dangerous; highlighting where he’s breaking campaign promises; and working to ensure they share their own positive economic message.

So far, it remains a work in progress.

“I could sit here and say, ‘Yeah man, we’re on our ‘A’ game.’ But honesty, this is an adjustment,” Bustos said. “He’s a president like we’ve never seen probably in the history of this country, but certainly in my lifetime and in my time in politics. He’s handling things by tweets; they’re happening in the dead of night. He is throwing out policy that he hasn’t even vetted among his own leadership in his own administration … We’ve got to adjust for the fact that this is how he’s planning to communicate and how we’re going to be effective.”

Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi said part of the problem is that each time the administration receives criticism, Trump and the White House release or tweet something new to change the conversation.

“As soon as they’re doing something and it’s not going well and we’re succeeding in pointing that out, they change the subject,” Pelosi said. “He’s an illusionist. We have to have clarity, put these things under one blanket.”

On the big picture, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the Democrat leadership, said he thought the party had a “unique opportunity” to contrast its message with Trump’s and to hold him accountable for his campaign promises.

“We’re going to have to make sure that people know about his failure to deliver,” Swalwell said. But, he added: “There’s not enough hours in the day to defend all the people he wants to hurt. That’s a challenge.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for the role of Democrat leader last year, said it was important for their message to create a clear picture of Trump as president: “Chaotic … unfocused, undisciplined.” The tweets and the problematic rollout of Trump’s travel ban executive order are examples Democrats can use to drive home the larger story of Trump’s governing style. Ryan, a former high school quarterback, used a football analogy to illustrate.

“We can’t keep up with the tweet of the day or tweet of the hour, but say, ‘Look, you’ve got to drive the ball down the field. You can’t be looking up in the stands.’ And this guy is worried about what the guy in the fifth row said about him and tweeting about it.”

Two weeks into the Trump presidency, Ryan wasn’t satisfied with House Democrats’ efforts. “Not yet,” he said when asked if they had been effective. “We’re only 10, 12 days, two weeks in, whatever. We’ve got to get better at it.”

But while responding to and opposing Trump is a major focus for Democrats, several members also stressed that they have to have a clear message of their own: reaching out to the blue-collar voters who backed Trump because they were inspired by his economic message and felt Washington, and Democrats, had left them behind. Bustos said they feel an obligation to respond to Trump’s tweets because of their significance, “but in the end, how we have to communicate with the American public is: What do we stand for?”

That effort will be a major part of their retreat here this week; the new chairman of the Democrat Caucus, New York Rep. Joe Crowley, gave the gathering the hashtag “#FightingForAll.”

His vice chair, Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, put it more bluntly: “I kind of dubbed it in my own language as kicking a little ass for the working class.”