Democrats’ Vulnerabilities? Elitism and Negativity

Democrats’ Vulnerabilities? Elitism and Negativity

- in House of Representatives

Plenty could go wrong en route to the most important midterm in a generation.

By Frank Bruni, Jane Harman and Tim Ryan

Mr. Bruni is a Times Op-Ed columnist. Ms. Harman is a former congresswoman from California. Mr. Ryan is a congressman from Ohio.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez photographed in her district in the Bronx.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Frank Bruni, a Times Op-Ed columnist, hosted an online conversation with two prominent Democrats: Representative Tim Ryan, a congressman from Ohio; and Jane Harman, the director and president of the Wilson Center and a former congresswoman from California. They discussed the challenges and opportunities that the 2018 midterms pose for Democrats.

Frank Bruni: The week began with a few polls that show that Democrats have an advantage of over 10 percentage points when voters are asked if they theoretically prefer to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in a House race. Is a blue wave on the way?

Jane Harman: I’ve seen lots of waves crest a week before the election. Democrats need to have a strong, positive message.

Bruni: And are you hearing such a message, or is the party still fumbling around for it?

Harman: Democrats announced a strong economic message (“a better deal”) early in the year, but it hasn’t gotten much traction. Sadly, most of the rhetoric is focused on how bad the Republican leadership is in Congress and the enormous number of mixed messages by the administration.

Bruni: Few congressional primary-race victors have received as much attention, and generated as much big-picture debate, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What does and what doesn’t she say about the Democratic Party right now and about its best course to win the House?

Tim Ryan: As someone who at 29 years old took on two sitting Democratic members of Congress to get to Congress, I’m always inspired by the energy of the insurgent-type campaigns. We have many inspiring candidates, mostly women, running all over the country. To help end the corruption of the current political system.

Harman: As one who was elected in 1992 — the so-called year of the woman — I’m ecstatic that 10,000 more women are seeking public office this year. I don’t agree that the current system is corrupt, but I do think that the business model of Congress is broken. People focus on getting re-elected more than on solving problems.

Jane Harman, director and president of the Wilson Center and a former House representativeCreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bruni: But the issues that she took up and the positions she struck — federal jobs guarantee, abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, etc. — are those a boon to or drag on the Democratic effort to take the House?

Harman: As a card-carrying “Scoop Jackson Democrat” (pro-trade, pro-business, pro-defense and progressive on social issues), it’s my view that both parties need the center to win the big races.

Ryan: I think that Ocasio-Cortez was expressing the frustration that so many people feel right now that our systems aren’t working for the people who work hard and play by the rules. She talked about the cost of rent, health care, wages and education. Those are bread and butter issues that play all across the country.

Bruni: Representative Ryan, you’re in precisely the kind of district and area of the Midwest that was crucial to Trump’s fortunes in 2016. Is what Ocasio-Cortez is saying and the way she says it helpful to winning those voters, or are you concerned?

Ryan: The boldness is helpful and welcomed, but we have to make sure we are speaking to people’s aspiration. We all support and organize for the fight for $15, but the centerpiece of our economic agenda has to be about getting those $30-, $40-an-hour jobs back to the workers in my Ohio district and other places across the country. We also need to make sure that we have policies that get private investment into the communities that have been left behind by globalization and automation.

Bruni: What’s the biggest mistake the Democratic Party is making right now in terms of the 2018 midterms?

Harman: I see too little airtime focused on a message that reaches for and includes the broadest cross-section of Democrats and independents. Tim is right that jobs are the centerpiece, but we must address the evolving nature of work. Technology can’t be put back in the bottle, and fair trade is crucial to building American jobs. And tribalism feeds a negative message; inclusion is much better.

President Trump departing the White House on his way to Brussels for NATO meetings.CreditSamuel Corum for The New York Times

Ryan: Our whole message can’t be about Trump and his actions, but we do need to call out the corruption and greed of this administration. And we need a bold message about rebuilding the United States and preparing us for the intense competition with China.

Bruni: Isn’t that the hell — well, one of the hells — of Trump’s reign? It’s certainly a quandary we in journalism face. To not call him and his people out on what they do (and don’t do) and on all the offenses to norms and civility feels like a dereliction of duty. To call him and them out constantly becomes background noise — an aural blur — to many Americans. What’s the answer?

Harman: Two thoughts: (1) How about one Trump-free hour each day on television? There is so much else to cover. (2) Let’s not forget that governments at the local and state level are adding considerable value on a bipartisan basis. At the moment, being a mayor or governor might be a better job.

Ryan: That’s the art of politics — how do you balance the two. Absolutely do not let him off the hook. But always leave space for our positive agenda and message. Let me know when that hour is, Jane. I will start watching TV again.

Bruni: Representative Ryan, you’ve several times mentioned “corruption.” Can you tell me precisely what you mean and how you’d fix it?

The entrance to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.CreditGeorge Rose/Getty Images

Ryan: Trump just made $40 million at his hotel that foreign dignitaries are staying in. Tax cuts that go to the same people who fund the Republican political apparatus and go to him directly. His refusal to turn over his tax returns while coddling Vladimir Putin. Business interests in Russia, China. The examples are endless.

We need to fix it by pushing public financing of our elections and getting the money out of politics. This is a new phrase I just came up with: “We need to drain the swamp.”

Bruni: Are those offenses you mention — and many others — ample grounds for impeachment? Should Democrats be talking more bluntly about that and be poised to act quickly if they reclaim the House majority?

Harman: I saw two impeachments up close and personal, and they are colossally disruptive. The Nixon impeachment was on a bipartisan basis, and he heeded the advice of Republican leadership to resign. He then (properly in my view) was pardoned by President Ford in an effort to heal the country.

In contrast, the Clinton impeachment brought government to a halt (I was in Congress at the time) and further aggravated the partisan divide. Any talk of impeaching President Trump is premature and helps to mobilize his base.

Ryan: We need to let Robert Mueller do his job, and let his investigation guide us. If he finds high crimes or treason, then impeachment is warranted. And Congress must do its job.

Bruni: Representative Ryan, I must ask: There have been reports in recent days that you are very actively thinking about and even taking preliminary steps to run for president in 2020. The articles even say that you’d be seeking what they call “the yoga vote.” What are your plans, and how is your downward dog?

Ryan: First off, Namaste. The first step in stopping Donald Trump is to take back the reins of power in Congress. And contrary to media reports, what I am focused on is winning my re-election and helping create a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. I know there has been some focus on my trips to Iowa and New Hampshire; we have potential pickup seats in those states, and I have also been to Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Alabama to help elect Democrats.

Bruni: I am going to take that as a nondenial denial, or as a denial nondenial, and note that you have completely evaded the issue of your downward dog. You politicians are all alike.

Ryan: I have a fairly adequate downward-facing dog for a 45-year-old former football player with a lot of old injuries.

Representative Tim RyanCreditKevin Lamarque/Reuters

Bruni: Being 45, you are a lot younger than the Democratic leadership in the House. You have challenged Nancy Pelosi for the speakership once. Will you do it again? And what do you make of her statement in a recent interview that you and Seth Moulton and others who question her leadership have no real support in the caucus? She was rather dismissive. Not namaste at all.

Ryan: Nice segue there. Totally un-yogi-like. I have not closed the door, but I am not actively pursuing it at this time. I was very disappointed that the leader of the Democratic caucus would call any member of our caucus inconsequential. Certainly, Seth Moulton and his service to our country in the armed forces is anything but inconsequential. He has recruited dozens of veterans to run for Congress to help us take back the majority.

So her comments are basically calling that whole initiative inconsequential. And what really is the Achilles’ heel of the Democratic brand is that we look elitist and judgmental. So this comment reinforces that stereotype. It communicates to people that only high-ranking Democrats in America will decide who is of consequence.

Bruni: Representative Harman, does the Democratic Party have an age crisis?

Harman: As a very young person, it is hard for me to grasp the import of your question. But seriously, I think that to attract new voters, they need to see opportunities for people like them.

Bruni: You’ve had your run-ins in the past with Nancy Pelosi. Does she cling too tight?

Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times

Harman: Urban legend.

Bruni: The question remains: Does she cling too tight to the reins of power?

Harman: She’s a fighter.

Bruni: And you’re a diplomat! Moving on: Representative Ryan, you’re in the region of the country where Trump’s trade war, his tariffs — and now his emergency aid — are causing much disruption and worry. How do you see it all affecting the midterms?

Ryan: Donald Trump has created this problem. And now the president wants to spend precious taxpayer money, $12 billion, to fix a problem he created.

Bruni: Yes, but will that $12 billion get him out of trouble? Or is this going to hurt him and the Republican Party anyway?

Ryan: It sounds like even the Republicans in the Senate are balking at the bailout. It is important to note that farmers have one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and now Trump’s trade chaos is making their lives harder.

Harman: Remember, I’m a pro-trade Democrat, and most of the experts at the Wilson Center on a bipartisan basis think trade creates new and better jobs for Americans. Few cars are made in one country, and foreign car manufacturing in the United States is a huge jobs multiplier. The so-called trade imbalance is a one-dimensional view and a misunderstanding of the benefits of trade.

Bruni: Let’s wind this up with some specifics. What’s one particular, discrete development over the last few weeks that increases your optimism about Nov. 6? And what’s one particular, concrete development that worries you? One and one.

Ryan: I am positive about Stacey Abrams’s winning in Georgia. She could become the first African-American woman governor in the country. We are fielding a diverse coalition of candidates that can win.

Stacey Abrams, who is running to be governor of Georgia.CreditChris Aluka Berry/Reuters

I am worried about the stress and burnout, the negativity that is impacting people across the country. That people would want to check out of the democratic process — that’s why we always need a positive, exciting message of hope for the future.

Harman: The activism of young people, whose turnout is usually abysmal in nonpresidential years. On the negative side, I am deeply worried about the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. Hot rhetoric may motivate some voters, but a hot war is devastating to contemplate.

Bruni: I want to wrap up, but, quickly, I can’t let that go. An accidental nuclear war? What’s that scenario?

Ryan: Let me know what Jane says. I am on my way to a bunker.

Harman: Sadly, lots of possible scenarios. North Korea thinks we are calling for regime change. So does Iran. Or possibly North Korea or Pakistan transfers a tactical nuke to a terror group. Have I scared you yet?

Bruni: You’ve terrified me. But I’m basically living hour to hour in a state of dread about our country, and I’m not being cheeky.

Ryan: Jane brings up a good point, though, winning the 24-hour news cycle is destabilizing, and I don’t think the president fully grasps how sensitive some of these issues are and how quickly they can spin out of control.

Harman: Thanks for your brave and cleareyed journalism.

Ryan: Thanks for having me.

Bruni: Thanks so much. I’m grateful to the two of you for your time. And now I think I myself need some yoga.

Frank Bruni is a Times Op-Ed columnist. Jane Harman, a former congresswoman from California, is the director and president of the Wilson Center. Tim Ryan is a congressman from Ohio.

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Frank Bruni has been an Op-Ed columnist since June 2011. His columns appear every Sunday and Wednesday. He joined The Times from The Detroit Free Press in 1995, and is the author of three New York Times best sellers. @FrankBruni Facebook


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