House Democrats came to Baltimore last week to do the excruciating work of hashing out a “messaging” plan. This would be tedious stuff even if the Democrats were a cohesive entity and not what they actually are, which is a diverse federation of often contradictory interests fond of interminable argument. But messaging is all they have right now, and so here they were for their winter retreat, toiling away on the second floor of an Inner Harbor Hyatt, making occasional trips downstairs in groups to try and convince skeptical reporters that everything was going fine, just fine, and that everyone was on the same page.
And here, on Thursday morning, was Nancy Pelosi, longtime leader of the House Democrats, pooh-poohing rumors that some progressive members had walked out during a presentation from the centrist think tank Third Way the previous day. She was sharp and lively and not in any mood to entertain questions she considered stupid.
“I didn’t notice that,” she said. “Members walk out over a variety of reasons. Some of them relate to personal hygiene. Some of them relate to, ‘I’ve got to call my mother, I’ve got to call my daughter.’ People just walk out.”
A reporter followed up: Are you saying that there are not real, deep divisions within the party?
“Yeah. That’s what I’m saying.”
She mentioned the Republican grassroots’ tendency in recent years to primary anyone who cast a stray vote, a purity putsch against members who dared work with the Democratic president or against conservative ideology. She sounded a little too confident that this was a “them” problem and not an “us” problem, with tempers already aboil on the left over any perceived collaboration with Donald Trump. I asked if there was any fear among the House Democratic caucus that the party’s base will do to Democrats what the Tea Party did to certain Republicans over any breaks from orthodoxy.
“We don’t have a party orthodoxy,” she said. “They are ideological.”
This was the challenge facing the folks upstairs who were trying to craft a cohesive message: this lingering and longstanding conviction that the Democratic Party comprises a set of nonideological interests, with the party serving as a glorified moderator. But is that really still the case? What was odd in Baltimore was watching elected Democrats struggle to do what has happened organically in the days since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Among wide swaths of the Democratic coalition, there is an orthodoxy forming: The party’s purpose is to block and resist Trump at every turn—and through that process reinforce their own priorities. The question that seemed to hang over the Inner Harbor last week, during both the House Democrats’ retreat and a Democratic National Committee forum on Saturday, was whether the Democrats realized that a message had already been made for them—not in hotel ballrooms, but in town halls around the country and quite literally in the streets.
* * *
The House Democratic caucus does not like being called irrelevant.
“There’s so much buzz in the press, ‘Oh, you’re Democrats, you don’t have any power in the House of Representatives, you’re gonna be irrelevant,’ ” Rep. Steny Hoyer said Wednesday in Baltimore. “We’re not irrelevant, not at all.”
Let us try to understand why some members of the press might have this impression, which the House minority whip categorizes as false. To be in the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, during a period of unified Republican control of the federal government and during a broader era of near total political polarization, is to have near-negligible control over the ship of state. Senate Democrats still have some leverage, for now, with what remains of the filibuster. Democrats in the House can stop nothing that hits the floor from passing—only Republicans’ internal divisions can achieve that. There may be some crucial bills coming down the pike for which Speaker Ryan turns to Democrats to make up for votes the Freedom Caucus won’t supply. Those bills have yet to materialize. The legislative efforts that have materialized are the push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and tax reform, congressional Republicans’ two stated goals for the year, which they’ll pursue via the party-line reconciliation process. They’ve shut the door on Democrats, and there’s not much that Democrats can do about it.
What, then, is the House Democrats’ role in the resistance? How are they to spend their time? “It is up to us to make sure that the public knows what is happening here, and how it affects them,” Pelosi said Wednesday.
In other words, all they’ve got is messaging.
That means cutting through the daily frenzy of Donald Trump’s early morning agenda-setting and score-settling on Twitter. “It’s an ancient Chinese, and even more modern, theory of war that one of the things you do in order to win a war is to make sure the other side cannot make its case,” Pelosi said. “So, as soon as they’re doing something—and if it’s not going well, and we’re succeeding in pointing that out, they change the subject. He’s an illusionist.”
Messaging on the Hill also mean sending a crisp signal to Republicans that Democrats will not bail them out with any votes if they go through with a risky escapade such as, say, repealing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement lined up. Rep. Frank Pallone, ranking Democratic member on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, said his party had a “tremendous” amount of leverage—enough to hold their ground against Republicans.
“If they go ahead and just repeal this thing, and even if they delay it but they have no replacement, then the danger is that the insurance marketplace starts to collapse,” Pallone said. “And I think what they’re envisioning is that if they do that, and it collapses, they would come back to us and say, ‘OK, we want your votes for replacement, because this is a disaster.’ But what they’re realizing is that disaster, that marketplace chaos which would result from repeal and no replacement, is going be blamed on them.”
The minority’s most powerful messaging weapon, though, is in not allowing congressional Republicans to operate independently of the madness radiating from the White House. Consider, to use an example from the week past, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley’s effort to see if Republicans would avoid consideration of a resolution affirming that the Holocaust targeted Jews. He succeeded: Republicans blocked the resolution.
“We want our Republican colleagues to understand that what the White House does, [House Republicans] either have to answer for, or they have to condemn,” a satisfied Crowley, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, said on Wednesday. “They can’t have it both ways. That’s another tool by which we will continue to use procedural votes on the floor to hold them accountable. It’s not just about the White House. It’s also about our Republican colleagues.”
“At the end of the day, 2018 will be more a referendum on what it is the House Republicans are going to allow him to do,” Rep. Denny Heck, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recruitment chair, said Thursday. “He can only do those things that they allow him to do, and he cannot do those things that they choose to stop him from doing. This is a referendum on them.”
If there’s problem with this theory, it’s in the premise that Trump’s insanity and poor approval ratings will drag down the rest of the party. The Republican base, which reliably turns out to vote in midterm elections, quite likes Trump. The question of whether congressional Republicans will provide a check on Trump has a much more obvious answer: of course not.
But messaging against Donald Trump and the congressional Republican agenda is all House Democrats can do right now, and Senate Democrats can’t do much more either. More importantly, it is all they should do. They need not concern themselves with what their platform ahead of the 2018 elections will be, because even if they pick up seats or even a chamber in Congress, they will still not be able to enact any of their agenda. Their goal is to stop Trump and the Republicans from doing bad things. It’s all their base is asking them to do.
* * *
Millions of people marched against Donald Trump the day after he was inaugurated. Republican members of Congress can’t hold town halls without being set upon by protesters hassling them about their agenda or the blind eye they turn to Trump. Resistance groups are gathering massive support online; the ACLU will never want for money again; the courts have blocked Trump’s order restricting travel into the United States. As Republicans put the Affordable Care Act on the chopping block, regular people are mustering a moral language for defending it that Democratic politicians have been loath to employ. Constituents have a powerful ability to find the right defense for something dear to them when someone is trying to take that thing away. Maybe the job of Democrats at the top isn’t to draw up a message in a focus group. Maybe it’s to follow those people on the ground expressing it already.
That seems to be the conclusion of several candidates vying for the chair of the DNC. The road to that process is now less than two weeks from its culmination at the DNC election on Feb. 25 in Atlanta. This past weekend, the race stopped in Baltimore—across the street from where the House Democrats had just met—for the final regional forum before the election.
The third floor of the Baltimore Convention Center on Saturday, one flight up from an international auto show, was rife with dozens of signs and assorted other literature for the candidates, of whom there are many. Ten people are running for chair, nine for vice chair, and four for secretary. Outside the main ballroom, supporters of various candidates were huddled opposite each other, as if preparing to begin a dance-off. They took turns loudly chanting for their candidates. Each candidate had a table from which to distribute information and, more welcomingly, free food. Henry Muñoz, the party’s national finance chair who’s running unopposed for re-election, set platters of Baltimore crab cakes on his table to distribute to all comers. No wonder the competition was scared off.
The race for DNC chair has receded into the background since Nov. 9, when liberal anger over the election manifested itself as an unprecedented interest in who would fill the role of unofficial tribune of both the party and the Trump resistance. The diminishing interest is telling: It turns out that the role has been more than ably filled by the millions of people who’ve taken to the streets and town halls to demonstrate against Trump and the anticipated predations of a unified Republican government.
But the DNC election still matters, including as a bellwether for how closely the party is listening to the howls of the people it purports to represent. The state of the race is difficult to ascertain. The chair of the Democratic Party will be determined by the votes of its 447 members, whose priorities don’t necessarily align with those of outside activists.
It appears to be a race, though, between former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison. The horserace drama, such as it is, is that of a silly proxy war between the emboldened Bernie Sanders wing of the party (Ellison) and its establishment (Perez). “Silly” not because the proxy war isn’t real—it’s definitely real, as Sanders’ post-campaign political organization, Our Revolution, has aggressively thrown its weight behind Ellison, while Perez is running at the urging of President Obama and his allies. “Silly” because Perez and Ellison are both capable, charismatic, progressive organizers who would serve the party well. They’re not so different.
The 11-person field has other appealing and capable options in the rising-star mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg; South Carolina Democratic Party chair and former House majority whip aide Jaime Harrison; New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair and current DNC Vice Chair Ray Buckley; the deeply credentialed party operative, organizer, and activist Jehmu Greene, and others.
The national party operation under the stewardship of any of these candidates would be a marked improvement over the torn and tattered DNC left behind by the last elected party chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, an incompetent and widely disliked Florida centrist who went so deep in the tank for Hillary Clinton during the primary that she didn’t dry off until Trump’s inauguration. Candidates weren’t shy about expressing their frustration with what the DNC had become, and how it had allowed local and state parties to atrophy. Mitch Caesar, chair of the Broward County Democratic Party and a candidate for vice chair, lamented the deterioration of the DNC into little more than a “federal pass-through for presidential elections.” Buckley described the DNC in recent years as being “the chair and a few staff.”
“For the last eight years, I’ve been a vice chair,” Buckley said, “and I don’t know what the hell is going on in this party any more than you.”
The DNC race of today has changed in scope even in the past month. Candidates entered this race thinking about how they could counter Trump. Now they’re thinking about how they can assist those who are already doing it.
“What I think we’re seeing is the broader organizational movement activity is welling up with or without us,” Buttigieg said Saturday, a few hours before the forum. “And the job of the next Democratic chair of the party is not cramming all of this into the party and try to run it from Washington. It’s to make sure the party is positioned as an ally and sees where it fits within the broader texture of the progressive movement, rather than the other way around.
“You go from the model of the airport protests and the women’s march, to the town hall meetings, where we watch this taken to the feet of the Republican Congress,” he continued. “If we keep guiding it that way, then it’s not such a long walk, a year from now, to start channeling this into working in electoral campaigns. But we can’t just be passive observers until September of next year, and then just suddenly call these people up when we need them to say, alright, time for you to [join] our movement. We have to be a part of theirs.”
Over the past few weeks, the grassroots-level interest in contributing to the resistance has spiked in a way that overloads the creaky local, state, and national Democratic Party infrastructure that’s still low on cash following the 2016 cycle.
“One of the things that’s core, and that’s very, very critical … is about building capacity,” Jaime Harrison said Friday. “I’m really concerned that if 500 or 1,000 of these people go to Democratic offices tomorrow, the question is, what do they do? Are the parties equipped to train them? And that’s what we need to make sure happens here in this race. I want this race to be done, and done soon, so whoever—if it’s me, or whomever the chair is—can make sure that the state parties, and that the DNC, have the capacity to be able to work with all of these groups.”
The Democratic Party will already have to play catchup with the growing sector of outside groups sopping up the overflow energy. Indivisible, over the course of a couple of months, has blossomed from a PDF dumped onto Twitter one night into a go-to hub for finding local meet-ups and organizing protest activity. (If a member of Congress finds himself or herself bombarded by rowdy town hall attendees, a lot of those attendees probably found their way there via Indivisible.) Groups such as SwingLeft and the Sister District Project offer residents of safe districts opportunities to help in other competitive races. The volunteers behind these groups talk to each other. While the Democratic Party has been debating its future leadership, these groups have been doing the early organizing work for them.
Liz Jaff, vice president for business development at Crowdpac and candidate for DNC vice chair, wants to bring this apparatus under the wing of the party.* “This is the DNC. It should happen here,” she said in her fired-up Saturday pitch in Baltimore. “What I’m asking, very simply, is to build this. To bring in these engineers to make this happen. To connect you with the movements.
“We shouldn’t see these groups as a threat,” she said later. “We need to embrace them.”
There was some debate among the candidates about whether the DNC should partner with these and other groups as outside vendors, or cut them out and build a proprietary operation within. That’s a narrow question for the newly elected DNC leadership to figure out. There was very little debate, though, about whether the party needs to plug into these outside movements the way groups such as Indivisible are, and serve as a clearinghouse for the energetic resistance to Trump.
It is much easier to harness energy than it is to be tasked with mustering energy where there is none. The DNC isn’t going to come up with “the message” any more than House Democrats are, or any more than Chuck Schumer is. The message is going to be determined on the ground and filter up to its politicians, and some of the best messaging in years is coming out from these packed town halls. The video of Jessi Bohon’s Christian defense of universal health coverage at a Tennessee town hall for Republican Rep. Diane Black has exploded. The clip of a Republican official in Florida being instantly jeered to silence after saying “death panel” was the most effective rejection of that lie since Sarah Palin first invented it eight years ago. Official Democrats don’t need to come up the message. They just need to get out of the message’s way.
*Correction, Feb. 13, 2017: This article originally misstated Liz Jaff’s title at Crowdpac. (Return.)