Dems to unveil populist agenda showing Sanders’ sway

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Democrats are beginning to craft an economic message for 2018 that goes beyond the tempting, single-minded strategy of demonizing Donald Trump.

Licking their wounds after an embarrassing showing in November, Democrats vowed to charge into next year’s midterms with a proactive sales pitch to voters. While many, including party leaders, have fallen right back into the same anti-Trump pattern they say cost them 2016 in the first place, top Democrats now say they’re working on “a strong, sharp-edged, bold economic message,” as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer put it Tuesday.

Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have met twice, according to aides, in addition to multiple staff-level meetings, to flesh out a broader economic agenda that’s expected to emerge as soon as early summer.

The package will be “populist” and designed to “unite both wings of both caucuses,” one senior Democratic aide said. Infrastructure and trade are expected to be key components, another aide confirmed.

Though Democrats have long diagnosed their failure to put forth a compelling economic message as a root cause of their crushing 2016 losses, their pursuit of a populist package this year reflects the lasting influence of Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid on their longer-term agenda. And after initially sending different signals about their plans, with aides expecting a cohesive campaign message would not emerge until next year, House and Senate Democrats now insist they are moving on the same track.

“We’re spending a lot of time on this,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday, vowing that Democrats would “hammer on” their economic proposals throughout the midterm campaign.

Still, Democrats say they don’t feel pressure to issue their own economic manifesto immediately. As the GOP suffers self-inflicted wounds on health care and Trump gets bogged down by an FBI probe of his ties to Russia, many in the party believe they should not risk getting in the way, at least not for now.

“It’s less important what our national message is right now, given that Donald Trump is sucking all of the oxygen out of the room,” moderate Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) told POLITICO.

“Quite frankly, the less we have to say about it, the better.”

Senate Democrats have already rolled out a $1 trillion infrastructure plan — though they haven’t fully addressed the thorny question of how they’ll pay for it — and a paid family leave package. Having staked out a detailed position on two of Trump’s core campaign-trail promises to middle-class voters, their sense of urgency is lower.

“We’ll continue to build on it, but we’ve already gone out there and laid out our vision,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in an interview.

But unlike the rough and tumble weeks after the election — House Democrats threatened to oust their longtime leader, and messy spats about the party’s missing message tumbled into the open — some lawmakers say they’re OK shooting barbs at Trump instead of laying out their own plan for voters.

“We have no message right now,” said one moderate House Democrat who asked not to be named to speak candidly. “But we don’t need one either.”

Kind, the former chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, was one of several lawmakers demanding the party do some serious soul searching after Democrats’ long-held “blue wall” collapsed as Rust Belt voters turned to Trump.

The Wisconsin Democrat voted against Pelosi for another term as Democratic leader and wasn’t shy about criticizing party elites for an election message that did little to motivate working-class whites. But, for now, he and several other lawmakers say targeting Trump is the best thing they can do.

Still, Kind and other like-minded members stressed Democrats will have to develop their own agenda in the coming months — and be able to really sell it — to avoid getting caught flat-footed again in 2018.

“I believe we owe it to the American people to say, ‘Here is a Democratic way of thinking about these issues,’” said Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, current chairman of the New Democrat Coalition. “I’m not sure it’s right now.”

Privately, party leaders insist the midterms will be a referendum on Trump’s first two years in office no matter what they do. And that’s a battle they’re confident they can win.

Pelosi still brings up Democrats’ “Six for ‘06” plan, their 2006 midterm playbook that was a play on Republicans’ famous “Contract for America” from the 1990s.

The Democrats’ 2006 game plan — a referendum on then-President George W. Bush and a handful of digestible talking points on things like national security and health care — was wildly successful. Democrats took back both the House and Senate, and Pelosi became the first female House speaker in history.

But some lawmakers and aides say relying on a decade-old strategy in a wildly different political environment is not a winning formula. The key, say those critics, is to start pushing a forceful economic message now.

That will give the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection — a dozen House “front-liners” and the 10 Democratic senators whose states Trump won — something to take back home. A strong, early message also promises to help those Democrats negotiate with the White House on infrastructure from a position of strength, even as Trump’s team makes overtures to them on a more Wall Street-friendly approach.

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short met with Blue Dog Democrats, a dwindling moderate and conservative faction in the caucus, last week. And at least one Senate Democrat facing voters next year, Florida’s Bill Nelson, has had a recent positive conversation with the White House about infrastructure.

“We want to reach the point that we can have a bipartisan effort,” said another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. At a town hall in Philadelphia last month, Casey urged voters to seek buy-in from his state’s Republicans for a deal to shore up roads and bridges.

Even liberal Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said recently that she has talked with the White House about her paid family leave bill, which boasts support from Sanders as well as moderate North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. But the outreach has not borne fruit yet, she told reporters last month.

The task ahead for Democrats, then, may be to bait Trump into swinging and missing on bread-and-butter economic issues just as he did on health care, while simultaneously plugging their own plan.

For now, Democrats are happy to stay on the sidelines while Republicans stumble through health care, tax reform and other red-meat issues.

“On every issue the president talked about — on the wall, on tearing up the Iran deal, on immediate health care repeal — [Republicans] are coming face-to-face with reality in a very painful way,” Himes said. “And we don’t want to slow down that learning process.”