Throngs of erstwhile Democrats voted for Trump in Ryan’s Rust Belt district in Youngstown, and they cheered his return for a bombastic rally in July.
Yet Ryan’s plan for winning them back is increasingly out of step in a Democratic Party fast moving to the left.
“People from areas like where I come from don’t necessarily hate corporations,” said the congressman, who wants Democrats to focus on boosting business instead of berating it for economic inequality. In Ryan’s view, the “hate the rich guy thing” doesn’t work.
Union leader RoseAnn DeMoro has equally strong views about what will fail Democrats: Ryan’s corporate-friendly approach, which she complains the party has clung to since Bill Clinton entered the White House. “In any other place they would have fired the entire group of people and started from a different narrative after the last election,” said the executive director of National Nurses United. “Not the Democrats. They have lost a thousand seats in the last decade and they are still staying the course.”
Beneath the united front that Democrats project over matters such as President Trump’s appeasement of white supremacists and policy missteps is a deep fissure over how to win back voters on the issue that matters most, the economy. The centrist economic policies that have been a driving force of the Democratic agenda for decades are under heavy attack from an ascendant left, led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Moderates are now scrambling to rebrand and reassert the “Clintonomics” that served them so well in the 1990s and into the Obama administration, including embracing global trade and collaborating with industry. But Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss has become a major drag on a platform that stops far short of progressives’ promises of Medicare for all, free college, expanded Social Security, increased taxes on the rich and protectionist trade policies.
Worried that they have nobody with equal star power to Sanders or Warren, centrists are eagerly seeking out recruits in such places as a stealthy confab held in Aspen, Colo., this month by Third Way, a centrist think tank. But in a sign of the sensitivities, organizers promised not to name the nationally known politicians in attendance lest they face harassment from the left for showing up.
A formidable group of Democratic elected officials led by one of the creators of Clintonomics, Will Marshall, has banded together under the name New Democracy to confront the growing influence of the left. Many of them hail from Trump country.
The group Priorities USA, which is packed with Hillary Clinton loyalists, has also plunged into the economic message debate armed with data from its focus groups of “persuadable” Trump voters in swing states. The effort is promoted as beneficial to Democrats of all varieties — and Priorities USA has no plans to get involved in primaries — but it also cautions candidates against banking too far left. Priorities Chairman Guy Cecil, citing the focus group findings, warned Democrats it would be a mistake to stress economic “fairness” over growth.
“Achieving economic success to these voters is more about working hard and leveraging the opportunities you are given, not leveling the playing field,” Cecil wrote in a widely distributed memo this month.
A lot of this is familiar. Centrist and progressive Democrats have been tangling for decades over what economic path to take, and the tension only grew in the aftermath of the election. The fight is playing out in backrooms in Washington and hostile volleys between activists over social media.
California Sen. Kamala Harris is among those caught in the crossfire. Activists on the left created a vivid meme that attacked her as a “centrist corn cob” — an insult progressives hurl at politicians they accuse of twisting themselves into positions palatable to the center. They cited her decision while California attorney general not to prosecute billionaire Steven T. Mnuchin, now Trump’s Treasury secretary, for misdeeds state investigators uncovered at the California bank Mnuchin ran. Their meme went viral after Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, a longtime advisor to Hillary Clinton, called on Sanders to tell his supporters to knock it off.
Party leadership sought to foster harmony with the rollout this summer of Democrats’ “A Better Deal” platform, which had populist undertones but was muted enough to not repel moderates. The vague document drew no small measure of mockery. Some complained it was about as inspired as the Papa John’s pizza chain slogan it sounded like (“Better ingredients. Better pizza.”).
The plan was silent on the issue fast emerging as a key focus among Democrats in the economic debate: whether to pursue a single-payer, government-run healthcare system, also known as “Medicare for all.” Large numbers of Democratic politicians, emboldened by the failure of Republicans to repeal Obamacare, are now backing it, including even some moderates like Rep. Ryan. Ben Tulchin, lead pollster for the Sanders presidential bid, argues that the concept has broad support from voters and can give a boost to Democrats even in conservative districts.
But the push has energized a counter-movement by Third Way.
“I am completely dubious of these claims that socialized medicine is wildly popular,” said Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way. “They never tell people in their polls that it would mean taxes go up significantly and they would not keep their doctor. Try that out. The moment you actually tell people what it is, support collapses.”
Cowan noted that Colorado voters in November soundly defeated a single-payer proposal. “This is a dangerous political fantasy,” he said. “If you believe in single-payer health insurance and don’t care about the consequences, fine. But to argue it is a political winner when it literally has never gotten more than 30% in a ballot measure is wrong.”
Third Way finds itself in a place it had not expected: re-litigating the same fights that played out during the Democratic primary. Its leaders anticipated that at this point they would be advising a Hillary Clinton White House on implementing the many policy proposals she had adopted from their playbook. Instead, they find themselves straining to bring them back into the discussion at all.
“Sandersism is the only cause on offer for Democrats right now,” Cowan said. “It didn’t win in the primary. It hasn’t been winning since the primary. It’s incumbent on Democrats to create and offer a true alternative to this.”
Once they do, it’s going to be a tough sell in a party that has grown impatient with its own establishment.
DeMoro, the union executive, has her own prediction on how it will be received by the voters that Democrats are eager to win back: “This is how it reads to middle America: ‘They are smug, they are not listening, they are not capable of listening.’”
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11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with more detail about the meme targeting Sen. Harris.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the New America Foundation hosted a meeting of centrist Democrats in Aspen, Colo. The meeting was hosted by the think tank Third Way.