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‘They got what they ordered, right?’: Democrats search for a midterm message at party gatherings

<i>Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>President Joe Biden speaks to members at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Washington
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg/Getty Images
President Joe Biden speaks to members at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Washington

By Eric Bradner, CNN

At gatherings in Washington and Philadelphia this week, President Joe Biden sought to rally Democrats around a midterm message that the party has delivered on its domestic promises. What Democrats need to do, he and other party brass argued, is make sure Americans know what they’ve accomplished.

But he also admitted at the House Democratic retreat in Philadelphia on Friday that making that case to voters is no easy task.

“The American people just trying to stay above water don’t understand this,” Biden said. “You tell them about the American Rescue Plan, and they say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?'”

Biden’s candid remark offered a window into why Democrats, who already face economic and historical headwinds heading into November’s midterms, have struggled to coalesce around a message to make their case to keep their narrow House and Senate majorities.

With their Build Back Better agenda on ice, a war in Europe commanding the White House’s focus and rising inflation and gas prices emerging as Americans’ dominant economic concerns, Democrats find themselves with little momentum and limited ability to steer the national political conversation onto more favorable ground.

Party leaders are frustrated by how little credit they receive for enacting a massive economic stimulus and an infrastructure package, overseeing the distribution of coronavirus vaccines to hundreds of millions of people and fulfilling Biden’s promise to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court.

They argue that Democrats’ record in the first 14 months of Biden’s administration offers a strong contrast with Republicans, who have so far built their midterm message around opposition to Biden rather than a vision for what the GOP would do if it wins control of Congress in November. Republicans need a net of five seats to win back the House and one seat to retake the Senate this fall.

“Our task is to show people that in many ways, they got what they ordered, right?” Vice President Kamala Harris said Saturday at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Washington. “They said this is what they wanted. They stood in line. They took time from work. It was difficult. And a lot of what they demanded, they got.”

Stalled momentum

Any momentum from Biden’s early economic successes was siphoned away when the Democratic-led Congress spent months unsuccessfully trying to reach a compromise on Biden’s Build Back Better plan that would have included much of his climate and social policy agenda. The White House has since dropped the Build Back Better branding — it was absent in Biden’s State of the Union speech and nowhere to be found at the retreat in Philadelphia or the DNC gathering in Washington.

Democratic efforts in Congress to pass voting rights legislation in response to a spate of restrictive new election laws passed in GOP-controlled states have stalled amid disagreement over at least partially eliminating the Senate filibuster.

And rising inflation and gas price hikes — issues that Biden has blamed on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — have trumped other economic concerns for voters.

“The overall message of, yes, Biden has moved the country forward — shots in the arm, money in pockets, has improved unemployment numbers — all of that is true,” said Jane Kleeb, the Nebraska Democratic Party chair. “What’s also true is people like the concrete things that they can get their hands around at the national level as well as the local level.”

She pointed to the lapse in the $300-a-month child tax credit and rising gas prices as more tangible to voters.

Kleeb said she has urged White House aides to take an “offensive message, not a defensive message” on gas prices, and particularly in defending Biden’s decision to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have used Biden’s move to argue that he is to blame for rising gas prices. Kleeb said Democrats need to make the case that Biden’s Keystone XL decision protected property rights and that its construction would not have changed gas prices.

“What’s on President Biden’s shoulders and the DNC is improving the overall brand of Democrats,” she said.

Other DNC members also pointed to rising gas prices as a major obstacle in selling the party’s economic achievements.

“We’ve got to clear up this assumption that President Biden is the reason gas is going through the roof,” said Felesia Martin, a Wisconsin Democratic Party vice chair and Milwaukee County supervisor.

“So much is going on. Two years of Covid, carrying into a third year, multiple variants, and it’s impacting everybody economically and on the home front with education. They’re not going to take the time to absorb all the great things that Democrats have done and are delivering on,” she said. “That is the major challenge for all of us.”

Focusing on the GOP

In Washington this week, Democrats took a shot at a 2022 messaging plan by highlighting recent actions of two GOP senators — Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Florida’s Rick Scott — in an effort to open old campaign playbooks against Republicans on personality, taxes and health care. The Democratic midterm wave of 2018 was driven by a relentless focus on President Donald Trump’s unpopularity, on the GOP’s failed efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act and on the 2017 Republican-backed tax cuts.

In a call with reporters, DNC Chair Jaime Harrison pointed to Johnson’s comment in a recent Breitbart interview that Republicans should continue to seek to repeal Obamacare if they win control of Congress in November and the White House in 2024.

Harrison also pointed to the recent 11-point plan released by Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. His plan included a proposal that read: “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount.”

“Republicans have finally made their agenda crystal clear,” Harrison said. “Thanks to Senator and NRSC Chair Rick Scott and Sen. Ron Johnson, we know exactly what the Republican economic agenda is. It’s for higher taxes, higher health care premiums. And absolutely they have no plan to lower costs on prescription drugs or other things in this country.”

Johnson has since backtracked, and Scott’s plan drew a stern rebuke from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who said Scott’s plan “would not be a part of our agenda.”

Still, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said: “Without question, that’s going to be a big issue, given that that’s part of their platform. And every single candidate will be asked about their position on that as we go forward.”

“I believe that folks don’t want to go back to the days when Republicans were focused on the wealthiest in this country and the highly profitable corporations that continue to increase prices right now,” Peters said.

Kleeb said Democrats should draw contrasts with Republicans’ focus on cultural issues at the state level. Florida state legislators passed a bill that would ban certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott directed that gender-affirming surgical treatments and hormone therapy given to transgender youth be investigated as “child abuse.” And a number of Republican-led states have advanced measures that would prohibit transgender youth from participating on school sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.

Democrats also previewed an effort to latch Republican midterm candidates to more controversial figures in the GOP, including Trump, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Abbott and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

However, similar efforts to tie entire parties to their least popular figures in the opposing party have failed in recent elections. In 2018, the GOP attempted to tie Democratic candidates to Nancy Pelosi — but lost control of the House anyway. In the Virginia governor’s race last year, Democrats tried to cast Republican Glenn Youngkin as a version of Trump with what Biden called “a smile and a fleece vest” — but Youngkin won anyway.

Still, Biden told DNC members Thursday night that the party needs to find a way to recapture its energy from the 2018 and 2020 election cycles that were favorable to Democrats.

If the party loses control of Congress in November, the President said, “it’s going to be a sad, sad two years” until the 2024 election.

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