Democrats began the week vowing to talk about jobs and wages — issues they said voters care about most.
By Wednesday, they were back in the thick of the culture war.
A party that promises over and over again to focus on pocketbook economic issues was reminded this week that doing so is easier said than done during Donald Trump's presidency. The Republican leader's ban on transgender military troops — announced suddenly Wednesday morning in a series of tweets — provoked a furious rebuttal from Democratic politicians, who condemned the decision and vowed to stand up for the LGBT community.
It's a familiar story for Democrats, who on Monday unveiled a carefully crafted economic "Better Deal" economic agenda they said would be key to winning back congressional majorities during next year's midterm elections. But their roll-out was partially overshadowed by senior White House adviser Jared Kushner's testimony on whether Trump's campaign colluded with the Russian government — part of an ongoing investigation that nearly every week demands response from Democratic leaders.
Two days later, the party’s message was again something other than the economy.
“Whether it’s just bad luck or Republican deviousness, our message does tend to get stepped on,” said Steve Israel, former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Israel recounted how when he ran the House Democrats' political arm in 2014, the party's economic-themed message was overtaken by the rise of ISIS and fears of an Ebola outbreak. Republicans gained 13 seats in the House that year, and nine in the Senate.
“The Trump administration has proven itself to be masterminds of deflection and distraction,” the former congressman said. “And Democrats cannot take the bait.”
Democrats did, in fact, spend much the day speaking out against the ban. Sen. Kamala Harris of California called it “un-American.” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the president’s conduct was driven by “prejudice.”
And a DCCC spokeswoman called the ban “disgusting.”
“President Trump is a draft dodger and if he wants to talk about 2018, we've got dozens of veteran candidates who have already shown what it looks like to step up and serve our country to keep us safe, and are ready to do it again in Congress,” said Meredith Kelly, DCCC spokeswoman.
Party strategists interviewed Wednesday said that even if the focus was on culture and not the economy, they welcomed the fight over transgender personnel in the military. A handful of Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, criticized Trump for the order, a sign, Democrats say, that it’s broadly unpopular.
They also say last year’s governor’s race in North Carolina, when a backlash to a transgender “bathroom bill” helped defeat incumbent GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, shows they would win a political fight over transgender rights.
But the specifics of this fight are less important than what it foreshadows for next year’s election, say Democratic operatives. Trump’s penchant for polarizing rhetoric and action will constantly demand responses from Democratic candidates, who will then have less time to talk about the economy or health care.
Instead of a fight the party desperately wants, like over the unpopular GOP health care legislation, they’ll re-engage on issues like the culture war — to the detriment of their campaigns.
“Yes, we stand up for our values, including stopping discrimination against brave Americans who want to serve in our military, and Democrats are doing that,” said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about party strategy. “But the voters are being clear: They're most concerned about health care and the economy. Democrats have to be disciplined.”
The threat of losing focus on the economy is a sore subject for Democrats, many of whom think Hillary Clinton’s defeat was a consequence of her over-reliance on cultural issues. When Democratic congressional leaders gathered Monday to unveil their “Better Deal” agenda, they declared that advocating for raising the minimum wage or reviving anti-trust laws were the key to winning back seats in the House and Senate.
“Democrats will show the country: We’re the party on the side of working people,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday.
Not every Democrat agrees the party should shy away from the transgender fights, or for that matter, any of the alleged distractions Trump initiates. Some party operatives argue, for instance, that the party should embrace Russia as a major issue, contending that the party has little choice but to talk about an issue constantly in the news.
On the transgender ban, some Democratic candidates argue for a similar approach.
“We as a party have been fighting for civil rights for decades, and we aren’t going to give up on that even as we’re also fighting for the middle class,” said J.B. Pritzker, a leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Illinois.
“We can simultaneously have an economic message and stand up for people’s rights,” he said. “There’s no reason we have to give up one for the other.”