POLITICS
01/30/2015 06:24 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

House Democrats Regroup On Middle-Class Message, Dance To 'Love Train'

NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- They came. They grappled with fresh losses. They searched for a new strategy. And then they danced their asses off.

This year's House Democratic retreat, a three-day getaway in Philadelphia, gave lawmakers a chance to regroup after losing 13 seats in November. But if the goal was to find a new, well-crafted message that resonates with their base and draws the uninspired back into the fold, the result probably underwhelmed. The strategy that lawmakers decided to go with is not all that different from before.

"We came out of that session with the caucus absolutely unified on three essential messages going forward: It's middle class, middle class and middle class," Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, enthusiastically told reporters.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), who leads the House Democratic Caucus, offered a similar sense of accomplishment Friday afternoon, just before party leaders piled into a bus to head back to Washington.

"We knew why we're here. We came understanding the mission we were given by the American people ... Grow America's economy. Grow American paychecks," said Becerra. "We choose to be Democrats because we choose to be the party of the middle class, not the party of [the Koch brothers]."

They weren't exactly breaking new ground. After all, Democrats have long claimed middle-class issues as theirs to champion. And the 2014 elections, which resulted in major losses for the party in the House and the Senate, showed the limitations of evoking the billionaire Koch brothers as conservative boogeymen.

"I am at a loss for polite words," said one lawmaker eager for a more specific plan forward.

"It's all about happy happy joy joy," said another lawmaker. "The emotion is, 'We're going to stand for you.' But we're not coming out of here saying we're fighters. No attitude. No gravitas. The retool has to be, 'We heard you. You don't trust that we're here for you. We're going to prove to you that we are.'"

But officials at the retreat said there were reasons to fall back on an old standard. For starters, the GOP is trying to encroach on their turf. House and Senate Republicans were fine-tuning an approach to tackling poverty and middle-class incomes during their own retreat earlier this month. Likewise, there is a palpable sense that their past message wasn't necessarily uninspiring or wrong in 2014. It was just overwhelmed by other factors like the Ebola crisis and the uprise of Islamic State militants.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered just such an explanation when she briefed reporters in Philadelphia. Over the next two years, she said, she expects Democrats to push a handful of key legislative priorities focused on the middle class, with the idea of staying on a simple, galvanizing agenda. Democrats took a similar tack in 2006, pushing six legislative issues ahead of the midterm election that year.

"This will be more like what we did in "Six for '06," where we had clarity of message, where we had consensus, and we had priorities, and that's how we will go forward," Pelosi said.

If the party follows Pelosi's instructions to keep it simple and straightforward, it would be a major coup for her. That's because there are plenty of issues beyond the middle class primed to bubble up and demand their attention. Among the more thorny matters are what limits to impose on the war against the Islamic State and how to square middle-class messaging with some Democrats' support for giving gifts to Wall Street. Those topics did not come up during the retreat, per conversations with about a half-dozen members.

Divisions over trade deals did come up, however, and there may have even been a tiny breakthrough. In private remarks to the caucus, President Barack Obama urged members to "keep your powder a little dry" on a controversial 11-nation trade deal and committed to giving members access to more details of the deal before asking them to give it an up-or-down vote. He also warned them not to read what HuffPost has to say about it.

"Get informed, not by reading The Huffington Post," said the president, who wrote a blog post the site had published hours earlier.

The president also asked lawmakers pushing for new Iran sanctions to back off as international talks proceed over Iran's nuclear capabilities. "My simple request, which I do not think is unreasonable, is for Congress to let this play out for two to three months," he told Rep. Dan Kildee (Mich.), per someone in the room.

If lawmakers did come away with a lifted spirit, Obama's address to the caucus Thursday night played a big part in it. In a campaign-style speech, the president brought Democrats to their feet as he encouraged them to "stand up straight and proud" on the issues they care about since those are the issues that matter the most to the middle class: affordable health care, family leave, paycheck fairness and college affordability.

"I'm not going out the last two years sitting on the sidelines," he added. "I am going to be out there making the case every single day, and I hope you join me."

Obama delighted some in the room with his zings at Republicans. He slammed GOP lawmakers for vowing to block funding for the Department of Homeland Security -- "These are the guys who are always saying they're concerned about the borders. Who do you think helps monitor our borders?" And he dinged Mitt Romney, though not by name, for his recent attention to income inequality.

"We've got a former presidential candidate on the other side who suddenly is just deeply concerned about poverty," the president said to laughs. "That's great! Let's go! Come on! Let's do something about it!"

His enthusiasm clearly fired up Pelosi. After the press was kicked out of the event, the Democratic leader pulled her husband and a dozen other members to their feet and they all danced to "Love Train," according to a source in the room.

"Member prom has ensued," concluded the source.

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