Better messaging, not changes in policy, is the key to winning elections again, House Democrats said Thursday as they huddled in Philadelphia to talk strategy. And the message, they said, must focus relentlessly on middle class paychecks.
Despite big setbacks in the midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers say they're sticking to their top priorities: a higher minimum wage, tax hikes on the rich, advancing the president's health care law and other measures largely associated with President Barack Obama.
This time, they're counting on Obama's rising popularity — and fading headlines on Ebola and terrorist beheadings — to help persuade voters they'd be better off with a Congress run by Democrats and not the Republicans who now control both chambers.
In a Thursday evening speech, the president vowed to pitch in. "I'm not giving up the last two years, standing on the sideline," Obama told the House Democrats, who gave him a standing ovation. "There is no economic measure by which we are not better off" than when he took office, he said, and Democrats must tell that story.
Americans generally agree with Democrats on big issues, Rep. Adam Schiff of California said in an interview, "but we need to do a better job on our overarching vision." He was among the House Democrats assembled for Obama's pep talk and private sessions on how to sharpen the party's message.
Their newly appointed chief of messaging, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, said House Democrats are "absolutely unified on three essential messages going forward. And it's middle class, middle class and middle class."
Israel acknowledged that Democrats talked a lot about the middle class in last fall's elections. But world calamities distracted voters, he said, and Democrats failed to show that their economic policies would directly benefit working class families.
Riffing on a campaign line of President Bill Clinton in 1992, Israel said the Democrats' new theme will be, "It's MY economy, stupid."
Many Republicans scoff at Democrats' talk of better messaging. "Updating the packaging doesn't help if the product is still lousy," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Republicans say huge numbers of Americans dislike the president's signature health care overhaul. Israel, by contrast, says only the "tea party base" strongly opposes it.
In a sense, both are right, which is why skillful framing and messaging are crucial to campaigns. Polls show that many Americans like key details of the health law, such as guaranteed insurance for people with pre-existing medical problems.
The law's overall image is less popular, however, especially when it's portrayed as a big-government mandate.
Seeking new ideas, dozens of House Democrats filled out a "messaging survey" on key points to stress. Israel displayed the resulting word cloud. The phrases cited most often were "middle class," ''paycheck growth," and "jobs."
He said heavy spending by conservative groups "cannot buy elections from people who know intuitively that Republicans, by their deed, will protect the rich and the well-connected, and Democrats, by their deed, will protect the middle class."
Israel added: "We're going to have to tap voters on the shoulder every single day to remind them of that."
Democrats groused about Obama's poor approval ratings last November, and most in tight elections kept him away. Now that jobs, the stock market and the president's popularity are rising, however, they're more content to acknowledge their ties to him.
"He's our messenger in chief," Israel said.
Some friction is inevitable, however, especially on trade. Obama wants authority to negotiate trade deals with minimal congressional interference, while many House Democrats oppose new trade pacts.
A Democratic official said Obama told the lawmakers he'll give them more information about the specifics in the trade deals he's negotiating overseas.
The official, who wasn't authorized to discuss a private meeting and requested anonymity, said Obama told Democrats previous trade deals haven't been perfect but these new ones will improve the status quo. He told lawmakers the U.S. can't afford to let China set rules for global trade.
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