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Democrats Struggle To Agree On Path Forward After Trump Victory

Nov 17, 2016
Originally published on November 18, 2016 8:18 am
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Since the election, there has been a lot of hand-wringing on Capitol Hill, at least on one side. House Democrats postponed their leadership elections until after Thanksgiving. A chunk of the caucus wanted a chance to ask their leaders hard questions about the path forward. Meanwhile, the soul-searching has infected Senate Democrats, too. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: What's familiar about this storyline? A caucus in the House is bickering with itself. There's one faction telling leaders something's got to change while the other faction is saying, don't squabble with us. There's a bigger enemy in the White House.

STEVE ISRAEL: This is when we've got to just stand up and fight back and not get back on our heels and fight amongst ourselves.

CHANG: This is not another story about House Republicans tearing themselves apart. No, this here is Democrat Steve Israel of New York.

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ISRAEL: Generating headlines about how we're divided is counterproductive. We ought to be fighting Donald Trump and his bad ideas and not be fighting amongst ourselves right now.

CHANG: The script has flipped. Still reeling from a devastating election, Democrats are playing out some of the drama more familiar to the other side the last few years. When House Democrats announced they were postponing their leadership election for a couple weeks, it meant only one thing - the family has got some serious issues to work out.

ALCEE HASTINGS: We need to have a full-blown come-to-Jesus meeting is what it all boils down to.

CHANG: Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings.

HASTINGS: The Miami Dolphins have had four coaches in five years, OK (laughter)?

CHANG: Hastings says Democrats need something new, too. Now, he's not trying to kick out their leaders, but many House Democrats like Seth Moulton of Massachusetts want leadership to rewrite the playbook.

SETH MOULTON: The last several elections have not gone well for us in the House. We can't just keep going on the same course. We clearly need to make some changes.

CHANG: Changes, Moulton says, like getting younger members in line for leadership and more racially diverse members. Nancy Pelosi has led House Democrats for almost a decade and a half, and now Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan says he's going to challenge her for leader. But earlier this week, Pelosi said at least two-thirds of her caucus is still with her.

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NANCY PELOSI: We cannot be taking the full responsibility for what happened in the election. We have to do our after-action review thoroughly and see what we could have done differently. But a lot of it was beyond our control.

CHANG: But what is within the party's control? That's what Democrats are anguishing over. They realize they do need to connect more effectively with the economic anxieties of voters - but which voters?

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Now, there's a debate going on about whether we should be the party of the diverse Obama coalition or the blue-collar American in the heartland.

CHANG: The new Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, says it's not a zero-sum game.

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SCHUMER: Some think we need to make a choice and spend all of our energy focused on one group of Americans or another. I believe that there does not have to be a division.

CHANG: But can you have it all? Schumer sure hopes so. On his new leadership team are former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders - that's a nod to the progressive wing - and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a nod to red states. If you're wondering how these two men will get along across the leadership table, here's a preview.

BERNIE SANDERS: The caucus is going to have to have the guts to stand up to the billionaire class, to talk about income and wealth inequality.

JOE MANCHIN: Bernie - you know, Bernie and I have - we can identify problems we agree on. Our solutions will be different. I want to hold people responsible and accountable for that. I'm not just giving everything away.

CHANG: For Manchin, it's about finding the middle with Donald Trump.

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MANCHIN: If President-elect Trump comes with good policies, I'm going to be 1,000 percent behind him, OK? Maybe my - the rest of my caucus will not, but I'm going to find a pathway forward.

CHANG: And that openness to Trump may be what Senate Democrats will have to accept because here's their looming problem - they will lose more Senate seats to Republicans in the 2018 midterms if they can't convince several red states to vote blue. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.