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Moderate Democrats Get Leadership’s Ear on 2016 Messaging

Israel and other House Democrats set up an "us vs. them" dichotomy with Republicans during their recent retreat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Israel and other House Democrats set up an "us vs. them" dichotomy with Republicans during their recent retreat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There’s some good news for the moderate House Democrats who believe they’ve been marginalized in discussions on party messaging: Leadership might be starting to listen.  

On Thursday morning, New Democrat Coalition Chairman Ron Kind of Wisconsin met privately with Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York, both lawmakers confirmed to CQ Roll Call.
Israel, charged with developing a unified narrative to help the minority pick up House seats next year, wanted to talk to Kind about the substance of the New Democrats’ “American Prosperity Agenda,” 23 policy proposals  that centrist Democrats contend are keys to winning again in swing districts.  

Israel had some news to share with Kind: DPCC-commissioned polling shows the New Democrats are onto something.  

“Fundamentally, what we come down to is this: In order to win, you have to get people to vote for you who haven’t voted for you, and the only way to do that is with a message that resonates across a broad swath of voters,” Israel said. “You can’t keep doing the same thing to the same people. You have to resonate with people who may vote for you or may not vote for you. I think Ron was absolutely correct, tactically and strategically, in how you frame that and deliver that.  

“Our research and the New Dems’ research agree on the sense that voters have that the economy is changing quickly and [they] want tools to help them stay ahead, so we’re completely aligned on that,” he said. “Making sure we have an economic agenda that supports growth and prosperity for all. … New Dems have a very substantive, positive, solution-oriented agenda, and our data tells us we need to have the same.”  

None of those insights seem particularly contentious — and that might be part of the point. One of the things Israel wants to do as he synthesizes the many voices in the House Democratic Caucus is craft a narrative that can speak to as wide a reach of voters as possible and on which a majority of members can agree.  

The New Democrats’ “American Prosperity Agenda” also seeks to frame issues using inviting, non-incendiary language — even as many of the agenda’s pro-business policies, such as an overhaul of the tax code, could be hard to sell in the party, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.  

The agenda also advocates for certain issues — policies to boost scientific and technological innovation to make the United States competitive in the global economy, for example — be brought to the forefront of the Democratic message.  

In an interview with CQ Roll Call Thursday, Kind said New Democrats want to impart to colleagues that “there are various ways of saying the same things in a different tone and a different way and that’s what I think is going to be valuable to a lot of our vulnerable, at-risk members, both for recruitment and in districts where we have to be competitive.”  

Still, progressive Democrats — those who want to see the party take more aggressive stands on the environment, women’s rights and minority issues — may balk at seeing leadership leading on the New Democrats.  

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, now the largest contingent in the House, has been emboldened recently by the emergence of new leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.  

Progressives contend the key to winning back the House — and keeping the White House — is being unafraid to advocate for policies that fall clearly on the left of the political spectrum. CPC Co-Chairman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., has urged Democrats to embrace the term “liberal,” arguing it’s a designation that needs no apology.  

But Kind said his meeting with Israel shouldn’t be read as leadership choosing one side over the other.  

“I know the story that wants to be written here is, ‘major conflict in the Democratic Caucus,'” he said. “There’s a lot of core, shared values that span the entire caucus and unite us, and that’s why we are, in essence, Democrats.”  

Progressives have plenty of evidence of their own influence: CPC members, on the same morning as Kind and Israel’s sit-down, attended the DPCC weekly meeting to share details about their debt-free college proposal.  

But if progressives ultimately feel their initiatives have been snubbed by leadership, the conflict Kind dismissed could become very real, very quickly.  

Progressives and moderates caucus have already clashed this year, pointing fingers at each other over November’s midterm elections that gave Democrats their smallest House minority in almost a century.  

Israel stressed his work is far from over.  

“In 2006, the Democrats had a focused, crystalized Democratic message. … It wasn’t rolled out until September of 2006. We won the majority with that message,” he explained. “People remember the message. What they don’t remember is that it was rolled out two months before the election, but developed 18 months before the election. So that’s the model. You can’t just pop a message into a microwave, press ‘reheat’ and have it come out. It’s gotta circulate, it’s gotta bake and it’s gotta reflect consensus and it’s gotta be scientific. And that takes time.”  


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