Members of the New Democrat Coalition have struggled for years to make their centrist message heard in the larger, and distinctly more left-leaning, House Democratic Caucus.
The 46 self-described “moderate” and “pro-growth” House members in the coalition say they agree with the rest of their caucus on “90 percent of the issues” — it’s the remaining 10 percent that’s harder to summarize.
How difficult? Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., shares a joke he tells about the group to illustrate the point.
“The New Dems’ message doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker,” he told CQ Roll Call. “So I said we should stand on the steps of the Capitol and shout, ‘What do we want? A comprehensive approach to job creation that includes tax reform, investments in infrastructure and a pro-growth budget that invests in our future! When do we want it? Well, we want to work in a collaborative way to bring people together!’
“I should probably have thrown education in there, too,” Kilmer added. “That would be a part of the chant, too.”
The New Democrat Coalition members have long bemoaned their exclusion from the leadership table that’s typically — especially now — skewed to the left.
But with Democrats of all stripes evaluating what went wrong in the 2014 midterms and wondering how to win back seats in 2016, members of the group see an opening to really be heard — and hopefully taken seriously.
That’s why, for the first time in its nearly 18-year history, the group is putting out a comprehensive legislative agenda.
The two-page document, obtained early by CQ Roll Call, lays out what the New Democrats think the party needs to do to compete in moderate swing-districts around the country, where Democrats have suffered major losses.
“There is a role for us to play,” said New Democrat Coalition Chairman Ron Kind of Wisconsin. “We’ve got to have a more active role and meaningful voice, or these districts are going to be harder and harder to defend going forward.”
When the agenda is formally unveiled Wednesday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland are scheduled to join the group at its weekly lunch, a promising signal for Kind.
According to CQ Roll Call’s copy of the agenda, the group’s policy priorities include several causes close to Democrats’ hearts, such as “expand[ing] childcare opportunities that help everyone balance work and family,” and “reform[ing] our broken campaign finance system.”
“You can find differences between New Dems and the Progressive Caucus,” said Vice Chairman Jim Himes of Connecticut, “but when we’re with each other, no one ever forgets we agree on the vast majority of policy ideas.”
But closer examination shows the document is a fairly dramatic departure from the talking points being promoted by the party establishment.
This election cycle, House Democratic leaders are touting a campaign trail narrative centered on growing the middle class. In 2014, they spoke largely about eradicating income inequality, extending unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage.
The New Democrat Coalition’s “American Prosperity Agenda” highlights policy areas that mainstream Democrats have largely glossed over. The “innovation” platform urges members to talk about ways to ensure the United States “lead[s] in the next great discoveries” and “become[s] the global magnet for the world’s top talent.”
Then there are the areas where members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — who currently make up the largest demographic of House Democrats — are likely to flat-out balk.
The New Democrat Coalition says the party ought to “fix the tax code to create American jobs and help American businesses compete” — or support a tax overhaul that would be friendly to the business community, which progressives increasingly regard with skepticism.
The members often use phrases preferred by Republicans, such as “lower regulatory obstacles” and “hold our schools accountable for results.”
And then there’s the reference to Trade Promotion Authority, an issue that is already dividing House Democrats and could be the source of some of the biggest intraparty fissures in recent memory.
As the group put it: “Aggressively pursue expanding export opportunities so we can make it here and sell it everywhere.”
New Democrats are ready to defend their position on trade, though they say it distracts from all the other issues they care about and has become the one position singled out most often by their critics on the left.
“It’s going to be an important role for the New Dem Coalition, to keep the focus on the policy and not the rhetoric,” Kind said.
Historically, New Democrats have tried to minimize tension between themselves and other factions in the House Democratic Caucus. On economic issues, they are more centrist, but in social matters their records are nearly identical.
Many moderates off Capitol Hill say the New Democrats should avoid presenting themselves as successors to the Blue Dogs, the fiscally and sometimes socially conservative Democrats from predominantly Southern states whose ranks were painfully diminished in the GOP wave of 2010.
The Blue Dogs also were frequent thorns in leadership’s side. The New Democrats say they don’t want to be that, either.
But many stakeholders say the coalition needs to be more aggressive when it comes to fighting against campaign tactics they say have cost Democrats their majorities in both chambers, and they hope the “American Prosperity Agenda” is a step in that direction.
“Look,” said Jim Kessler, a co-founder and vice president of policy for Third Way, an outside group that works closely with the New Democrat Coalition. “I think on the one hand, there’s never been more interest in what the New Dems and moderates are saying within the caucus and throughout Washington. At the same time, there’s never been more hostility.”
Kessler said that while the New Democrats want to “govern,” the progressives represent the “advocacy wing of the party that often times is happy having the fight rather than coming to some sort of conclusion.”
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said that House Democratic leaders ultimately have a responsibility to represent the ideology of the majority of their members.
“The leaders have to reflect the caucus, right? And numerically speaking, the people in the caucus now have the lefter-tilt,” Marshall explained. “To the extent that there’s resistance [to the New Democrats], I don’t think it comes from the leaders as it does from the left wing of the party. Folks that are in very safe Democratic districts, very urban districts that produce supermajorities, people who are not vulnerable, they’re just under a different set of incentives and frankly they have closer ties to groups that are happier with the party’s status quo than the moderates are.”
New Democrats speaking with CQ Roll Call wouldn’t insert themselves into the fray. “It’s awfully easy when you don’t win an election to start turning on each other,” Kind said.
New Democrat Whip John Carney of Delaware just hopes the “American Prosperity Agenda” proves to be a useful tool, in many ways, in the months ahead.
“We’re developing a vision and something that we can all rally behind and understand,” he said. “Here’s what we’re all about. Here’s our area of focus. These are a series of things that we bring to the table and our caucus can build on, our common values and objectives.
“It’s a message we can take to constituents back in our own districts,” he said. “We can use it to pick up districts as we try to expand our caucus.”