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Is the Democrats' Economic Agenda Enough to Win Back the House in 2018?

Some of the ideas contained within the new policy agenda reflect the growing influence of the party's progressive wing.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries, pictured here in 2016.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, pictured here in 2016.

Democrats unveiled on Monday the policy agenda they hope will allow them to take back the House of Representatives in 2018.

The plan—which, in a nod to both Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" and President Donald Trump's self-proclaimed deal-making prowess, is called "A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future"—is a result of months of meetings, strategizing, and brainstorming. Party leaders say it's meant to appeal to the many fractions of the party: moderates, progressives, and both rural and urban voters. In an op-ed published in CNN on Monday, Cheri Bustos (D-Illinois), David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), and Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York), the co-chairs of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, write that "[b]y listening to all voices, the agenda reflects the beautiful mosaic and diversity of our country—as well as the hopes, dreams and aspirations of its people."

Most of the ideas contained within this policy agenda aren't new, although several of them reflect the growing influence of the party's progressive wing. The platform rests on three planks: a promise to create more well-paid jobs (10 million over the next five years) via investments in infrastructure and apprenticeship and job-training programs; a focus on "put[ting] economic power back into the hands of the American people" via more aggressive anti-trust policy, an idea that has been championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts); and an aggressive focus on lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

The Democrats' new agenda is also notable for what it lacks: references to divisive social issues or to the ongoing investigation into whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. These omissions were not an accident. Democratic leaders have argued for months that simply standing "against Trump" will not win elections; the party needs instead to make clear what it stands for—and it had better be sure those are the issues its constituents really care about.

The irony here, of course, is that, unlike Trump, these folks are already enmeshed in the very system they're railing against.

This policy introduces new language and messaging, both of which borrow heavily from the anti-establishment rhetoric of the Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Trump campaigns. In a video unveiling the "Better Deal" agenda, Sanders declares, "[t]he time is long overdue for government to begin standing up for the working families of this country and for taking on the big money interests who have so much power politically and economically." Other Democrats are taking an even bigger embrace of populist language around economic issues. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) has made frequent reference to the "rigged economy" in recent interviews about the platform, and Hakeem Jeffries, appearing on CNN shortly before the announcement of the new platform, said bluntly, "these folks are being screwed all across America by an economy that's not working for them."

Democrats are betting that they can win back the House of Representatives, as well as many of the working-class voters who abandoned the party, by mimicking the president's campaign strategies: promising to bring back good-paying jobs, and lashing out at D.C. insiders and their "rigged economy." The irony here, of course, is that, unlike Trump (and, to an extent, Sanders), these folks are already enmeshed in the very system they're railing against.

Such a strategy requires a kind of focus and messaging discipline that the party has traditionally lacked. "As Democrats, we love messaging by demographic group. We love cultural issues. We don't like repeating the same economic message over and over again," Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) told Politico.

Democrats clearly like their odds, particularly in the face of the GOP's ongoing struggles to accomplish any of its legislative priorities. In their op-ed, Bustos, Cicilline, and Jeffries previewed the kind of lines we're likely to see next year: "Mired in controversy, Washington Republicans are unable to uphold the basic bargain they made with the American people when they were elected: to fight to create new good-paying jobs and support sustained economic growth."

If that line of attack sounds like a tired cliché, that's because it is. It also might be the Democrats' best chance at regaining solid footing in D.C.