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House Democrats struggle to find a voice in Trump-era minority

Friday, January 6, 2017 - 19:38

[WASHINGTON] Jamie Raskin has been a member of the US House of Representatives for less than a week, but he isn't joining a newly energised and resurgent Democratic caucus like he hoped. Instead, he'll be a freshman member of a party stuck in the political wilderness.

"For me, it's a bit of a cold shower," said Mr Raskin, a former Democratic leader in the Maryland state legislature.

"I had hoped I would be part of a big blue wave overtaking Washington and giving us the opportunity to make progress on many fronts in national politics."

After a disappointing election where Democrats fell short, Mr Raskin and the 193 other House Democrats he joins in Congress's new session are trying to revitalise their demoralised base. They also want to win back Rust Belt voters who bolted for Donald Trump.  It's a tough task. 

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They serve in a chamber where rules and traditions give the minority party virtually no ability to get measures on the floor or even amend what the governing party offers.  And it could be a while before they find their footing.

Many in the party are desperate to reinvent Democrats' image, but it might not help that their top two House leaders have been in place for more than a decade.

Mr Raskin says one place to start is tackling the loss of jobs in a shrinking manufacturing sector. But he says the party's traditional responses, like a minimum wage boost or protecting entitlement programs from cuts, aren't sufficient any more.

"If we get the substance right, the message will follow along," he said.

"The problem that we are having with displaced working-class whites across America is a problem that neither party has a solution to. It's not just a question of trade, it's more an issue of automation and mechanisation which are replacing millions of workers in America."

Peter Welch of Vermont, who as a chief deputy whip helps Democratic leaders count votes, says that they should start by simply sticking together. Democrats picked up a mere six House seats in the elections, leaving Republicans to govern with a 23-seat margin.

Mr Welch is counting on the Republicans to be more fractured than his party - and he's hoping that united Democrats can exploit Mr Trump's splits with some conservatives on infrastructure spending, trade and other matters.

The House's most conservative lawmakers "won't provide their votes unless they get their way," said Mr Welch, who was first elected in 2007 when Democrats took House control from Republicans. House Speaker Paul Ryan "has to decide whether he will accede to their demands or find reasonable Democrats who are willing to work on bills," the Vermont lawmaker said.

That still leaves Democrats trying to figure out how to rebuild their own image.  Just-retired Representative Steve Israel of New York, who oversaw campaign strategy and fundraising for House Democrats in 2012 and 2014, says his colleagues would be best off focusing on the 2018 midterm elections.

Historically, the party out of power picks up seats in non-presidential election years, and he says Democrats have a chance to retake the House - although the electoral map suggests that's a real long shot.

Mr Israel said Mr Trump's win stemmed from a convergence of factors including economic insecurity, the alienation of middle-class voters and the spread of terrorism.

"Make no mistake, this was a brutal election," Mr Israel said.

"But from a political perspective, the worst is behind us. We have a strong wind at our backs going into the midterm elections. To take advantage of that, we have to tap into the anxieties of middle-class voters and offer them a constructive blueprint for economic progress and stability."

Even as they seek a jolt for their party, House Democrats elected to stay the course with their leaders. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California turned back a challenge from Ohio Representative Tim Ryan in late November, despite dashed expectations that they'd gain as many as 20 Democratic seats and charges the leadership team needed some younger blood.

Ms Pelosi and other top leaders, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, are all in their 70s.

Ms Pelosi scrambled to stave off a rebellion, inventing a few new leadership jobs for younger Democrats on her team and on House committees. But it's unclear how long that will satisfy the newer members of the caucus who want to chart a more robust progressive path.

Mr Welch says they can't lose sight of how far they have to climb, and he says he was among a cluster of Democrats who successfully argued to delay caucus votes on leadership jobs for a few weeks so they could assess things.

The party plight now, Mr Welch says, is worse than in 2010, when the party lost 63 seats and control of the chamber amid a wave of Tea Party fervour. That's because Democrats still had the dual power perches of the White House and Senate back then.

Some aspects of party messaging need to change significantly, Mr Welch says. Democrats are too caught up in policies geared to key groups in the Democratic base, including Latinos, African Americans and gays, he said. Mr Welch wants to combat the growing perception of Democrats as an East Coast-West Coast party that underplays needs of rural Midwestern voters.

"The economy has to be a universal message showing a commitment to all Americans who want to work, rather than to have it perceived as identity-based politics," he said.

"We have to be talking jobs, jobs, jobs."

Mr Raskin wants the party to reclaim its reputation as a defender of the Constitution, something that Tea Party-backed House Republicans have harnessed successfully. Mr Raskin, who teaches constitutional law at American University, says liberalism has plenty of claim to that founding document.

"We have to be the authentic champions of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights and the civil liberties of the people," he said.

"Somehow the Tea Party right within the Republican Party has been able to claim the mantle of Constitutionalists. I don't think it fits."

Mr Israel insists Democrats by early December were already working through their post-election grief and are regrouping. He said it's notable that Representative Ben Ray Lujan, who will lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2018 elections, held a first recruitment strategy meeting with interested Democrats on Dec 8, the same day the House finished work for 2016.

"It says, get up, dust yourself off," Mr Israel said, "and start winning in 2018 and stop crying about 2016."

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