Congressional Democrats were confused and upset Wednesday that the party’s nationally televised response to President Donald Trump, one of its best opportunities to present a new face of the beleaguered party, offered little in the way of charisma or change.
If former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who gave a party response to Trump’s Tuesday night speech, is supposed to be the new face of the Democratic Party, his visage appears to have been lost in the crowd – notably among fellow Democrats.
“I don’t know who the former governor of Kentucky is, and I don’t think anybody else does, either,” said Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., whose district includes Philadelphia. “Do you?”
Beshear, a former two-term governor of the Bluegrass State was part of the party’s strategy to appeal to what the Democrats have lost during the last few election cycles – white, rural, mostly-male voters.
But his talk, and the day-after strategy voiced by party leaders, were not the sort of new thinking or new energy that many rank and file Democrats badly seek to combat Republicans, who control Congress, the White House and 33 governorships.
Leaders said they would continue to battle Republicans, slow-walking his Senate confirmations and fighting against attempts to repeal and dilute Obamacare.
The strategy irks a lot of Democrats.
“We continue to make some of the same mistakes we have made in the past,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We talk about reinventing ourselves, we talk about making changes, and then as soon as the talk is over we go right back to doing what we’ve been doing.”
Fudge and other Democrats believe that the party’s attempts to woo back disaffected rural voters by presenting faces like Beshear is a waste of time.
“Anybody who thinks we’re going to get a large percentage of those that they keep saying we lost back in this party are dreaming,” she said. “Certainly, we should reach out because we can bring some back. But those numbers are not going to be significant.
“This country has changed so much in the last 20 years and has become so polarized over the last 10 in particular. We need to start to try to expand our base that we know is our people instead of trying to spend 80 percent of our resources on maybe what we consider about three to four percent of the vote.”
Rep. Lacy Clay, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Beshear is a face in the Democratic Party. But so is someone like Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., an African-American Muslim who unsuccessfully ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“The key is to bring those millennials back,” said Clay, D-Mo. “Those that feel they need to have a protest vote and not vote for Hillary (Clinton). We need to bring in all of those voices in order to work at becoming a cohesive party and building on that. You know politics is about addition and not subtraction.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., another progressive caucus member, called the Democratic response to Trump’s speech a lost opportunity.
“I think we had an opportunity to showcase our economic populist issues and didn’t do it,” he said. “Us nuancing anything is not going to work right now. I thought that part of what happened last night was nuancing, trying to give a face of a part of America that the party feels is not with us right now.”
The Beshear response had some Democratic defenders. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Beshear was a good choice to reinforce that the Affordable Care Act is under siege by Republicans.
“He led the country in the health care exchanges in the Affordable Care Act, knows first-hand about the success of the Affordable Care Act,” DaLauro said. “Speaking out on the Affordable Care Act is critically important because of their success.”
Symone Sanders, a Democratic political consultant who was national press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, disagreed.
“It’s more than just challenging the Trump agenda,” she said. “We have to tell the story of who we are otherwise we’re going to get ran over in the midterms, just like we got ran over on election day.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Rep. Lacy Clay.