By Emma Dumain, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
PHILADELPHIA — For House Democrats, it seemed fitting they held their annual issues conference in the City of Brotherly Love.
After nearly three months of soul-searching and second-guessing in the wake of a demoralizing midterm election, it took just three days in Philadelphia to restore — at least publicly — a sense of unity and resolve among most of Nancy Pelosi’s troops.
“I feel like there has been somewhat of a narrative of ‘Democrats in disarray,'” Rep. Jan Schakowsky said at one point. “I’m trying to find that anywhere and I haven’t seen it.”
Many agreed with the Illinois Democrat. In a retreat notable for a lack of outbreaks or gripes about leadership, both members and aides attending the closed-door strategy sessions told CQ Roll Call that the show of togetherness was real.
But despite the tightly choreographed panels, the new middle-class mantra and Thursday night’s fiery call-to-arms from President Barack Obama, there were members wondering if the retreat was more flash than substance.
“All of that is good, people are feeling good,” said Rep. Peter Welch D-VT). “I think the challenge for us now is, ‘OK. What’s our message?'”
Many of his colleagues would fire back that they already have one for 2016: Democrats are of the party that will fight forcefully and unapologetically for the growth, development and prosperity of the middle class.
“The word is ‘aspirational,'” said Rep. Steve Israel, the most recent chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who’s now the head of a leadership task force charged with honing party talking points. “Our message will be built on a foundation of aspiration. … Everything has to go through the prism of middle class security.”
Still, some members are not convinced just talking about the middle class will be the panacea after last November — even if this time around, party leaders have vowed to be less muddled in delivering the bottom line.
After all, the rhetoric that Democrats extolled this week isn’t entirely new, as Ways and Means ranking member Sander M. Levin of Michigan conceded.
“It isn’t that we just arrived,” Levin told CQ Roll Call. “It’s not a new message. But I think there’s a new urgency.”
Rep. Scott Peters of California, a sophomore member who only barely won re-election, was more pointed in his assessment: “I’m skeptical that saying the same thing better is the right answer.”
For Peters and others attending the retreat, there was a sense that with all the talk, there was still a lot that was left unsaid regarding what went wrong in the last cycle and how to right the ship in the next.
“I think there are things that we have to come to terms with, how poorly we’ve done in these elections. I don’t think we did that,” Peters said. “In that sense (the retreat) was a lost opportunity. A little bit.”
But if there are members in the 188-person Democratic caucus who would take issue with the premise that lawmakers left Philadelphia more unified than they were before, why did none of them speak out in the hours-worth of panel discussions? There were plenty of opportunities to interact with the president and vice president, political strategists, public officials and even their own peers.
Peters himself acknowledged that he did not disrupt any of the programming to share his views, saying that for the most part he enjoyed the presentations.
One House Democrat who attended the retreat suggested that the lack of candid conversation about lingering concerns with 2016 strategy from within the rank-and-file had to do with the format of the retreat.
With the theme “Growing America’s Economy, Growing American Paychecks,” the schedule of events was carefully plotted out and meticulously timed. The Democrat said many members had made suggestions to leadership about what panels would be helpful in getting to the root of the troubles in the 2014 cycle, but for whatever reason those recommendations weren’t reflected in the final agenda.
It also was a fact that many of the members who are most outwardly critical of leadership, who have more moderate leanings than the rest of their colleagues or who are among the most politically vulnerable in the caucus — those who might have felt compelled to speak out of turn — did not attend the retreat. That’s true most years.
In the meantime, members are prepared to go back to Capitol Hill and push leadership to address the kinds of things they think will make a difference.
Welch wants Democrats to be bold on policies like supporting a gas tax increase to pay for legislation to fund surface transportation and infrastructure improvements.
Members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition want their colleagues to be less knee-jerk when it comes to their opposition to giving Obama authority to enter into trade negotiations, an issue that is already causing divisions within the caucus (though one of the harshest critics of so-called “fast-track authority,” Democratic Steering and Policy Co-Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, disputed the premise that disagreement on the issue could be jeopardize for the appearance of Democratic unity).
And the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman in the previous Congress, Ohio Democrat Marcia L. Fudge, told CQ Roll Call, “I’ve always said that, as a party, we don’t talk enough about the poor.”
One House Democratic aide who sat through the retreat was the least forgiving: “The angst in the caucus (wasn’t) dealt with, and will continue to fester.”
(Matt Fuller contributed to this report.)
Photo: President Obama addresses members of the House Democratic caucus on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015, during a three-day policy retreat in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)