The Democratic Party is at a crossroads, but everyone on Capitol Hill seems to have a different roadmap.
Democrats, still in shock over Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss to president-elect Donald Trump, are faced with a stark new reality: they are not only the minority party in all corners of Capitol Hill and across the nation—but there are cracks in places where their foundation was thought to be very strong.
The party is debating how it got here and whether it’s time to tack left, in the Bernie Sanders’ vein of populism, or to go back to the middle, which is how they won in the nineties and regained control of the House in 2006.
The change didn’t come overnight. The party has been devastated in the past three election cycles, losing more than 900 state legislative seats and 11 governorships since President Barack Obama took office.
But it was Clinton’s string of losses in the Rust Belt—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio—that caused the soul searching in the party.
“So you can’t conclude anything else but that our message is wrong. Our values aren’t wrong, but our message is wrong,” Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) told The Daily Beast. “The one thing we must commit to is that whatever our message is going forward must be different than what we had in the past because that one has failed.”
For some younger House Democrats that means a change in leadership at the top.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) was a part of a group of lawmakers who spearheaded the successful effort that forced party leaders to put off leadership elections, which were originally scheduled for this week, until after Thanksgiving.
“This is not necessarily about a challenge. This is more along the lines of accountability,” Gallego told The Daily Beast. “If our leaders want to run again then they should talk to us about what the goals are, what the strategic goals are, how things are going to change, and we have a right to hear this as essentially constituents of the caucus, as well as representatives of our constituents back home.”
There remains an effort underway to get Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) to challenge Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but she seems to have staved off the effort to unseat her by circulating a letter to her colleagues on Wednesday claiming to have shored up the support of two-thirds of her caucus. For his part, Ryan hasn’t ruled a challenge out, though his bid would be a long shot at this point.
The question facing lawmakers is who will be the face of the party heading into the 2018 midterm elections?
“If I had my druthers I would see all new leadership,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) told The Daily Beast. “If we do not win the House in the next term it will be difficult for the present leadership team to stay.”
While Hastings is confident Pelosi will be reelected by her fellow Democrats, he adds she needs to take the growing angst among her rank and file seriously.
“The members need to be assured that she hears all the voices of frustration,” Hastings said. “As would be the case after any election there is the venting and the finger pointing, the circular firing squad and all of those circumstances.”
In two years Democrats have to defend 10 Senate seats in states that Trump won, which is hanging over the party like a rain cloud. The party has yet to even find a senator willing to lead the fight as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Still, Democrats in the Senate dealt with the simmering tension in the party by expanding their tent, kind of. On Wednesday, after officially being elected minority leader, New York’s Chuck Schumer announced Democrats added three new leadership positions in the Senate.
Progressive senators were awarded three new slots, while conservative Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was given the title Vice Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. But, after reviewing Clinton’s dismal returns, Schumer argued the party needs to expand its appeal not only in the Rust Belt, but also with progressives.
“I believe that there does not have to be a division. In fact, there must not be a division,” Schumer told reporters at the Capitol. “We need to be the party that speaks to and works on behalf of all Americans, and a bigger, bolder, sharper edged economic message that talks about how people in the middle class, and those struggling to make it there, can do better but also deals directly with the unfairness in the American economic system.”
In order to shore up the party’s progressive wing Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Sanders were also added to the diverse leadership team, which gives the Vermont senator the seat at the table his supporters have demanded. While that puts him at odds with senators like Manchin, Sanders is vowing to keep pushing his party to the left with his message of economic populism.
“I think it’s time to rethink how we go forward. We can’t just keep doing the same old, same old and keep losing,” Sanders, now Senate Democrat’s Chair of Outreach, told reporters. “I think the fundamental issue is an understanding that there’s a lot of pain and suffering among working people in this country.”