(CNN)The plan is out and the verdict is in. Progressives are greeting the Democratic congressional leadership’s new economic agenda with cautious optimism, choosing to highlight notes of common cause — and mostly play down the now familiar divisions — as the party begins a fresh play to rebrand itself ahead of the coming midterm election.
There is little in the policy portfolio introduced on Monday in Virginia that will strike voters as new or innovative — a close reading of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s voluminous issues hub will turn up many of the same ideas and policy prescriptions. If anything, Clinton ultimately went further then than the new pitch did in its debut now, with pages dedicated to organized labor and debt-free college.
But the question for national Democrats in this chaotic moment is less about policy — an ongoing debate that both invigorates and threatens to rupture the party — than prioritization in messaging. A dirty word in some quarters, Democrats are now banking on the hope that, by zeroing in on chronic economic dislocation, they can juice the liberal base while activating a growing populist grassroots that rejected Trumpism but never quite came around to the alternative.
The challenge now, will be in convincing the public to buy in.
“You have to be extremely disciplined,” Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist and former top aide to former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, told CNN. “It’s not about the one day of unveiling a message. It’s about sticking to it every single day and having all of your members and all of your candidates saying the same thing, over and over and over again.”
Progressive criticism of the Clinton campaign’s tactics often returns to this point. Policy is easily subsumed by politics — and success, be it in elections or the daily struggle to commandeer the conversation, comes to those who can streamline the two and then hammer away.
“What we’ve learned from the last election is that it’s not enough to have a good issues page on your website,” Katz said. “You need to actually talk about it and fight for it everyday.”
How they go about it — in particular language they use — will be instrumental. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s introduction in the The New York Times and the official agenda are colored by the language of the left. Pledges to invest “directly” — that is, with public funds — in new infrastructure projects and “crack down on monopolies and the concentration of economic power” project a renewed willingness to tout government intervention as a worthy means of advancing working class interests.
“Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided (pro-business) policies directly and unflinchingly — so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for,” Schumer wrote. “Not after today. Democrats will show the country that we’re the party on the side of working people.”
There is early buy-in from the progressive left, which has welcomed the shift in focus. As the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s Adam Green said in an email to reporters, “The framing of this 2018 economic populist messaging is admirable and strong.”
Berniecrats’ leaders too are praising the party’s direction — offering mostly good reviews to the Democratic plan while playing down its tensions with the bolder agenda presented by the new “People’s Platform,” which pushes for single-payer health care and free college.
“Our Revolution will be asking Democrats to use the ‘Better Deal’ as a starting point and to not only support the Democratic platform but to discuss these issues at every opportunity,” the group’s board chair, Larry Cohen, told CNN on Tuesday, hours before its new president, Nina Turner, and other activist groups launched their “Summer for Progress” in Washington, DC.
The progressive millennial group #AllOfUs, which helped craft the “People’s Platform,” responded to the rollout on Monday with an email headlined, “Imitation may be the greatest form of flattery.” A day on, co-founder Waleed Shahid said the new agenda “reveals where progressive populists have won over the establishment and where we haven’t.”
“It’s clear that (Democrats) realize they must message as populists,” Shahid said, “but they aren’t fully willing to break with Wall Street and their corporate donors, force the billionaire class to pay their fair share, and embrace ‘Medicare For All,’ free college, a full employment economy based in transforming our energy system, or taking the Republican dog whistle head on.”
Those negotiations are coming.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to release his single-payer health care plan soon after the fate of Trumpcare is decided. Republican success in repealing Obamacare, suddenly on the table again amid a flurry of late reversals by GOP senators, would only boost its relevance. In the meantime, Democrats are committed to keeping it simple.
“(A Better Deal) is our collective vision,” House members Cheri Bustos, David Cicilline and Hakeem Jeffries wrote in a Monday op-ed on CNN.com. “This is not a slogan. It’s who we are and what we intend to accomplish for the American people.”
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