It was a blunt, plain-spoken set of senators who gathered last Monday at the Washington home of Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, dining on Chinese food as they vented frustration about the missteps of the Democratic Party.
To this decidedly centrist group, the 2016 election was nothing short of a fiasco: final proof that its national party had grown indifferent to the rural, more conservative areas represented by Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana, who attended the dinner. All face difficult re-election races in 2018.
The party, these senators said, had grown overly fixated on cultural issues with limited appeal to the heartland. They criticized Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” as flat and opaque, according to multiple people present at the dinner, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Most of all, they lamented, Democrats had simply failed to offer a clarion message about the economy with appeal to all 50 states.
“Why did the working people, who have always been our base, turn away?” Mr. Manchin said in an interview, recounting the tenor of the dinner conversation.
Moderate Democrats are not alone in their sense of urgency about honing a new economic message. After a stinging loss to Donald J. Trump, liberals in the party are also trying to figure out how to tap into the populist unrest that convulsed both parties in 2016. Only by making pocketbook issues the central focus, they say, can Democrats recover in the 2018 midterm elections and unseat Mr. Trump in 2020.
“We need to double down and double down again on the importance of building an economy not just for those at the top, but for everyone,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a high-profile progressive who is seen as a leading potential opponent for Mr. Trump.
This pocketbook-centered approach offers an added benefit in the minds of Democratic strategists: It papers over the party’s differences on how much to focus on cultural issues.
There is little appetite among most Democrats to substantively revise their stances on issues like abortion, gay rights, gun control and immigration, where trends on the national level continue to favor the party. By constructing a platform focused on an overarching theme of economic fairness, Democrats are hoping to avoid yoking their candidates to a more divisive agenda that could sink them in states like North Dakota and West Virginia, which are crucial to control of the Senate.
This is markedly different from the approach that party leaders have taken over the last eight years, when President Obama defined the party from top to bottom with his personality and policies. Instead, Democrats intend to focus on a sparer agenda of bread-and-butter priorities that can win support from both liberal and moderate officeholders — and appeal to voters just as much in red states as along the two coasts.
It's abortion, gay rights, gun control and immigration that Democrats will now be running away from. Most importantly it's issues of race that will be ignored. Democrats will simply pretend Obama never happened.
Voters of color will not. If we're going to go with a combination of Bernie "It's always about class" whitewashing and Centrist Dem triangulation, the Obama coalition will disintegrate for good and the GOP will rule this nation for a generation. If we even last that long.
Good luck, Dems. Good luck chasing the white vote and taking the black, Hispanic, and Asian vote for granted.
2020's going to get ugly soon if this prevails.