Democrats Hone a New Message: It’s the Economy First


“Why did the working people, who have always been our base, turn away?” Mr. Manchin said in an interview, recounting the tenor of the dinner conversation.

Moderate Democrats are not alone in their sense of urgency about honing a new economic message. After a stinging loss to Donald J. Trump, liberals in the party are also trying to figure out how to tap into the populist unrest that convulsed both parties in 2016. Only by making pocketbook issues the central focus, they say, can Democrats recover in the 2018 midterm elections and unseat Mr. Trump in 2020.

“We need to double down and double down again on the importance of building an economy not just for those at the top, but for everyone,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a high-profile progressive who is seen as a leading potential opponent for Mr. Trump.

This pocketbook-centered approach offers an added benefit in the minds of Democratic strategists: It papers over the party’s differences on how much to focus on cultural issues.

There is little appetite among most Democrats to substantively revise their stances on issues like abortion, gay rights, gun control and immigration, where trends on the national level continue to favor the party. By constructing a platform focused on an overarching theme of economic fairness, Democrats are hoping to avoid yoking their candidates to a more divisive agenda that could sink them in states like North Dakota and West Virginia, which are crucial to control of the Senate.

This is markedly different from the approach that party leaders have taken over the last eight years, when President Obama defined the party from top to bottom with his personality and policies. Instead, Democrats intend to focus on a sparer agenda of bread-and-butter priorities that can win support from both liberal and moderate officeholders — and appeal to voters just as much in red states as along the two coasts.

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Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic Senate leader, whose party is showing evidence of a more tightly focused agenda.

Credit
Al Drago/The New York Times

Beyond that, they expect wide variance in how officeholders handle Mr. Trump and his agenda, from moderates who seek out accommodation to blue-state leaders who pursue total war. Their emerging message is likely to focus on protecting Medicare and Social Security, attacking income inequality and political corruption, and blocking legislation that might restrict access to health care.

The first salvo in the fight will be over Mr. Trump’s pick of Representative Tom Price of Georgia, a vocal supporter of privatizing Medicare, as secretary of health and human services: The Democrats at Ms. Heitkamp’s dinner discussed how to highlight and, potentially, block Mr. Price’s appointment, according to an attendee.

Many Democrats, especially those from the party’s more liberal wing, see significant reasons for optimism about their political prospects in the medium and long terms. Though Mr. Trump prevailed in the Electoral College, he did so thanks to the slimmest of margins in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and he lost the popular vote nationally by nearly three million votes.

With the country growing more urban and racially diverse, Democrats like their chances in the 2020 presidential race, when nonwhite voters are likely to make up more than 30 percent of the electorate for the first time in history. Even in Mrs. Clinton’s defeat, the country’s changing hue helped her come closer than any Democrat in decades to flipping Arizona and Georgia, two traditional Republican bastions.

But before the next presidential race, Democrats must navigate a treacherous landscape of midterm elections. They must defend 10 Senate seats in states Mr. Trump won, many of them in the Rust Belt and the West. And unless they break the Republican lock on state governments by winning governorships in a handful of big states, like Wisconsin and Ohio, they may be unable to prevent Republicans from continuing to draw congressional maps that favor their candidates.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a new member of the Democratic leadership team in the House, said he considered Mr. Trump an “Electoral College president” and cautioned Democrats not to overreact to his victory. But Mr. Jeffries agreed that Democrats must court “blue-collar voters we lost, without abandoning our core constituencies and principles that made up the Obama coalition.”’

“We will not take back the majority,” Mr. Jeffries said, “unless we have a big-tent approach.”

At a meeting of House Democrats this past week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said the party did not have to move away from its liberal values or cease to be a party that “welcomes those who seem to have been left behind for a long time.”

But for Democrats to represent themselves as a “party of working people,” Representative Dan Kildee of Michigan, who is weighing a bid for governor in 2018, said they would have to reorganize their message around issues that are “fundamental to economic security,” and await opportunities to exploit Mr. Trump’s shortcomings.

Evidence of a narrower, more tightly focused Democratic agenda was on display this past week at a Capitol Hill news conference, where a range of Democrats spoke beside scrubs-clad nurses and older voters holding up signs that read: “It’s not wise to privatize.”

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic Senate leader, warned gravely that Republicans were “gearing up for a war on seniors.” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, echoing the economic themes that propelled his White House bid and first drew Democratic attention to the potency of populism this year, vowed, “We are not going to allow the billionaire class or Trump or anybody else to cut the programs that the elderly, the disabled and disabled vets absolutely depend upon.”

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Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, both Democrats, on Capitol Hill this month. Ms. Warren is seen as a leading potential opponent for Mr. Trump.

Credit
Al Drago/The New York Times

This effort to defend popular government programs appeals to all elements of the party and offers the promise of winning back some of the older white voters it has lost in recent elections. And it recalls the strategy Democrats turned to the last time they were trying to reclaim control of Congress when Republicans had full control of the government, and the left was united in opposition to President George W. Bush’s attempted Social Security overhaul.

Still, the Democrats’ fortunes may rest chiefly with Mr. Trump. If he shuns the lawmakers in his own party who want to overhaul entitlements such as Medicare and governs more as a populist than as a free-market conservative, it could complicate the Democratic comeback strategy.

Outside Washington, some party leaders plan on taking the fight to Mr. Trump more immediately. Progressives in blue-state capitals appear primed to take a more combative approach, attacking Mr. Trump and obstructing him on issues important to liberal voters.

These Democrats have already pledged to put up a front of resistance to Mr. Trump’s policies, much as Republican governors and attorneys general did against Mr. Obama. Representative Xavier Becerra, who has been appointed the new attorney general of California, said leaders in the states would hold the line on policy where Democrats in Washington could not.

“Our role will principally be to defend the progress we have made in recent years,” Mr. Becerra said.

He pointed to a resolution the California State Legislature passed stating that “California stands unified in rejecting the politics of hatred and exclusion” and demanding that Mr. Trump “not pursue mass deportation strategies that needlessly tear families apart, or target immigrants for deportation based on vague and unjustified criteria.”

At a retreat for Democratic governors in New Orleans last weekend, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington argued forcefully that governors should send a message to the White House on health care, among other issues.

“There is so much threatened in my state,” Mr. Inslee said in an interview. “We will be engaged vigorously in making sure that the public understands what’s going on and how damaging it can be.”

But even liberals believe Democrats must work harder to compete for voters who lean to the right, if only to shave a few points off the Republican Party’s margin of victory in rural America. In some cases, they said, that may mean embracing candidates who hold wildly different views from the national party on certain core priorities.

Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mrs. Clinton’s running mate, said Democrats did not have to choose between supporting liberal policies and competing for conservative votes. But he seemed to imply that Democrats had made a mistake in 2016 by not working harder to win over skeptical voters.

“In the presidential race, where there’s just a much bigger playing field, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Well, I’m only going to get 35 percent, so I’m not going to go there,’” Mr. Kaine said. “Well, the difference between 35 and 25 is big.”

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