For moderate Democrats in competitive districts— including those where Trump dominated in 2016 — the shift away from impeachment less than a week after the Senate acquitted the president is a welcome reprieve.
“I’m glad that we’re shifting and pivoting to something else. Every time I poll in my area, it’s always the same thing: education, health care and the economy,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who is facing a fierce primary challenger from the left in his sprawling south Texas district.
The centrist Democrat said he sees Pelosi’s shift to the economy as a signal that talk of impeachment and investigations are over in the House, at least for now. A series of ongoing court cases, though, could renew the push among some Democrats to investigate Trump, including the bid to interview former White House counsel Don McGahn. But Democrats risk appearing as sore losers in light of the president’s acquittal.
“That is what I understand,” Cuellar said, jokingly tapping a wall outside the House chamber, as if to knock on wood. “That is what I’m hoping.”
Democrats, including Pelosi, argue that they’ve been talking about the economy nonstop since taking back control of the House — and have passed a new major trade agreement and a slew of other bills, most of which are languishing in the Republican Senate.
But after the Senate cleared Trump, Democrats are privately hoping their message can break through and damage a president who is heading into his reelection campaign more emboldened than ever.
“Impeachment didn’t move the needle … so continuing to focus on that target, you’re not going to convince anyone at this point,” said Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who represents a Trump-district.
Kind said Trump’s real problem is in states that are key to his reelection, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where some haven’t benefited from the president’s economic good fortune.
“You still see record farm bankruptcies taking place in Wisconsin, a manufacturing recession, stagnant wage growth and no paid family or medical leave policy,” Kind said. “These are major problems holding us back economically.”
Democrats have already begun to aggressively go after Trump’s track record on the economy, teeing up the same line of attack that they attribute to recapturing the House in 2018. But they can’t decide exactly how to message it.
Some Democrats are eager to go all in on hammering Trump, saying he’s lying about the claims he makes about the state of the economy when he came into office, the reality behind the rising wages and jobs numbers and the impact the Republican tax law has had on the middle class.
But other Democrats want to take a more nuanced approach and even claim some of the credit for what they see as good economic news, like January’s strong job numbers, slowly ticking-up wage growth and the years-long stock surge.
“Look, I think everyone will acknowledge, the stock market is up and unemployment is down, but that doesn’t tell the full picture,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who heads the caucus’ messaging committee.
“I think all of us hear from our constituents. They know the economy is improving, but their own personal situation isn’t getting better,” Cicilline said.
The pressure for Democrats to get the message right on the economy comes as Trump enters the throes of his reelection campaign with the highest approval ratings at any time of his presidency. His approval rating now stands at 49 percent, leaving him virtually unshaken by an election scandal that would likely sink any other president.
Pelosi and other top Democrats have never thought impeachment would be a winning political message, fully aware that he would be acquitted by the Senate. They refused to even consider the possibility of impeaching Trump until the fall, when Trump was accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
But Democrats were privately shocked by the fealty to Trump from Senate Republicans — particularly moderates — throughout the impeachment trial, especially on questions of calling new witnesses or evidence.
Capitol Hill Democrats are now under pressure to play catch-up to White House messaging on the economy, after months of impeachment overshadowing their own agenda on the airwaves.
Some of the party’s worst fears were realized in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll that showed nearly 6 in 10 people approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, another career high.
In a closed-door meeting this week, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) argued to his fellow Democrats that they should try to take credit for economic gains that he said were likely spurred by policies under President Barack Obama, according to multiple people in the room.
But Cicilline, a member of Pelosi’s leadership team, countered that Democrats needed to pummel Trump for all the ways that he’s catered to the wealthiest Americans over the poor and middle class.
Cicilline pointed to recent internal polling that showed Democrats who argue over which party deserves credit for a strong economy would have a “losing message” against Trump in 2020.
The polling, conducted by the Navigator Research group, showed that candidates playing the partisan blame game — arguing, for example, that Obama pulled the country out of a recession — would lose in a head-to-head against Trump’s economic message 38 percent to 41 percent.
The winning message, the polling finds, is when Democrats talk to people “about what’s happening in their lives,” like rising cost-of-living expenses but stagnant wages. That message wins 49 percent to 35 percent, according to data obtained by POLITICO.
Trump is even making a push for voters from minority groups who typically support Democrats, touting record low unemployment for Latino and black workers. But Democrats say they don’t think it will work.
“Black and Latino voters aren’t selfish voters,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “We’re just not going to vote for the economy when he’s caging children, causing all this racist rhetoric, doing all these types of things that I think affect our communities, not just jobs.”
Still, at the heart of the debate is a difficult question for Democrats: how to tout some of the economic successes of the last three years, without making Trump’s own case for reelection in 2020?
“It would not be a saleable argument to say the economy’s not doing well. It has been doing well, it continues to do relatively well,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said at a briefing with reporters. “But, quite frankly, the economy is growing jobs at about 30,000 less than the Obama administration.”
The post-impeachment shift within the Democratic Caucus is evident, with Pelosi and her deputies taking strides to talk up pocketbook issues like health care and the economy.
Still, Democratic leaders continue to face some pressure within their caucus to continue investigating Trump on matters related to the Ukraine scandal — including subpoenaing former national security adviser John Bolton, who claimed in an unpublished manuscript that Trump told him he withheld millions of dollars in Ukraine aid while waiting for the country’s assistance to investigate Biden.
Pelosi indicated last week she has no desire to summon Bolton and would rather see the current court cases play out first — a sentiment she reiterated in a private meeting Monday.
But details of the Ukraine scandal have continued to surface since Trump’s Senate trial ended, including the Justice Department’s decision this week to review information from Rudy Giuliani on Biden.
Asked about the development on Tuesday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) condemned the move but did not call for further investigations.
“I don’t want to look backward, because we’re focused on looking forward,” said Jeffries, who was one of seven House impeachment managers who prosecuted Trump in the Senate. “This is all now in the hands of the American people.”