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Democratic Voters Roundtable: Finding A Cohesive Message Ahead Of Midterm Elections


Republican divisions have been front and center in the debate over the party's health care legislation. But the Democrats are not without their own problems. The party has lost a string of special elections many Democrats had hoped that the party could win. And since the 2016 election, there have been bitter debates about what the party should prioritize as it opposes a Republican agenda and looks ahead to the midterms. We reached out to a group of Democratic voters to get their thoughts. Akhurapa Ambak is a law student and joins us from New York City. Good morning.

AKHURAPA AMBAK: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Juna Osborne is a clinical social worker in Roanoke, Va., who is running for office for the first time this year for the Virginia House of Delegates. Congratulations and good morning.

JUNA OSBORNE: Thank you. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Michael Lewis-Beck is a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, and he joins us from Iowa City. Good morning to you.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to put this to all of you. How do you feel about your party right now? There is such a focus on Democratic resistance to the Trump agenda. Is that the message going forward?

AMBAK: I think that has to be part of the message, but it can't be the entire message. We have to remember every day that this is not normal. But we also have to put forward a positive agenda. We have to talk to people about how we're going to get their kids better educated, how we're going to get them jobs and better-paying jobs, how we're going to make sure that, if they're struggling - that they can enter the middle class.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But is there a cohesive message? I mean, one of the things that the Democratic Party has been criticized for is that, really, they don't seem to have a message that is resonating.

AMBAK: I think that the message is still under development. You know, the elections are 18 months away. We have plenty of time to develop and fine-tune a message. And it won't be the same everywhere. I think one of the worst things that we as a party can do is to try and run every single candidate in the same talking point. You have to speak to your district to your constituents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Juna, you are actually running for office. What is your message to energize voters?

OSBORNE: Well, part of my message is that I am not a politician. I'm not part of the establishment. I am a working mother. I have a family. You know, as an extension of my career as a clinical social worker, I really value listening to other people and hearing what they have to say versus telling them exactly what I'm going to do for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what is your reaction to the Democratic message overall of the Democratic Party? Are you satisfied that they have a message that's going to resonate?

OSBORNE: You know, I agree with Mike - or Akhurapa, rather - it is under development. And I think we are, you know, trying to find our footing. And I think we do need one sort of binding, overarching message. And I strongly believe that we will get there very soon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Michael, when you hear words like under development, do you find that frustrating?

LEWIS-BECK: Well, I do. I mean, I'm not criticizing my colleagues here, but I'm actually criticizing the Democratic Party leadership as represented by the Clintons. It's the same, old message. They want to do Republican lite. And what we need is a new New Deal and that needs to be loud and clear. We need to focus on jobs, on infrastructure, on the social net and make it very clear that government is valuable, and it will target people who are out of work and want work. And they can work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael, you supported Bernie Sanders. Am I right?


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This brings up a clear split that has been discussed at length in the party, the different wings of the Democratic Party, the one that supported Bernie Sanders, the one that supported Hillary Clinton. Do you think that that is still a split that is hobbling getting a cohesive message?

LEWIS-BECK: I fear so. I fear so. This is an old problem. I mean, this is this thing, like, well, we can't go any farther left than we already are. Well, we're really not that far left. And the argument is that we can't win if we go farther left. But there's really very little evidence of that. What we have evidence of is if you don't go far enough left, you lose.

I mean, Bernie Sanders almost won. I mean, this - and this is still a hard pill to swallow for the political establishment in the Democratic Party as represented by the Clintons. I mean, the Clinton message - they don't talk about workers. They don't talk about infrastructure, putting people - you know, making the deserts bloom again like Lyndon Johnson used to talk about.

AMBAK: I've got to disagree.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I was about to say, Akhurapa, you supported Hillary Clinton.

AMBAK: I did. And I think if you actually paid attention to what Secretary Clinton said in the election and not what was reported about what she said, she used the word jobs. She used the word infrastructure more than any other candidate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So, obviously, these divisions are still alive and well, but we have to look forward. The election's behind us. The divisions are still there. What issues do you think the Democratic Party should focus on going forward?

AMBAK: I think, broadly speaking, the Democratic Party should focus on issues of fairness. It's about educational opportunity. It's about economic opportunity. It's about making sure that, you know, African-American voters like me aren't being disenfranchised by voter ID laws. It's about, you know, making sure that people in Appalachian coal country know that they have opportunities. And that should be what we talk about.


LEWIS-BECK: I don't disagree with that. I agree with that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My last question - what is your message to the Democratic leadership? Akhurapa, you start - Juna and then Michael.

AMBAK: My message would be to push back. Don't normalize this in both the Senate and the House. And to the leadership in the house, it would be to continue to stand strong. Continue, Leader Pelosi, to keep your caucus together and stand as the bulwark against this agenda.


OSBORNE: My message would be that we need to get back to our core values. We need to start to use real language. Use lay terms that do not really create this separation of, you know, sort of the Democratic elite. I think we also - I would like to see the Democratic Party get behind its candidates in full force. Of course, we saw a divide with Hillary and Bernie. But when the nominee is the nominee, then we need to get behind our candidates in full force.


LEWIS-BECK: Well, I think what we need to do as a party is to have a new New Deal. I already said that. Another thing I want to say - and that connection is that Roosevelt, despite the fact that he was a rich aristocrat, really went after corporate money and big-business influence in politics. And that's what we have now. You know, the Koch brothers and people like that - the PACs are buying and trying to buy and have bought off a number of candidates and senators and representatives. And this has got to be called out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Michael Lewis-Beck, Juna Osborne and Akhurapa Ambak. Thank you so much for being with us.

AMBAK: Great talking to you.

LEWIS-BECK: My pleasure.

OSBORNE: Thank you. This has been great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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