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Can Democrats find a rallying cry that wins with voters?

February 24, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Having lost the White House and now as the minority in both houses of Congress, what should the Democratic Party's message be going forward? Judy Woodruff talks to Symone Sanders, a strategist for Priorities USA and former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders, and Jaime Harrison, chairman for the South Carolina Democratic Party, about the need for unity and the party’s future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: November’s presidential defeat, along with years of losses in Congress, governor’s mansions and statehouses have left the Democratic Party with less power at the federal and state level than it has had in more than 80 years.

As the Democratic National Committee prepares to elect its new leader this weekend, we want to assess the state of the party with Jaime Harrison. He’s the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and, until yesterday, a contender for the job himself. And Symone Sanders, she’s a political strategist for Priorities USA. It’s a Democratic super PAC. She’s also the former national press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

I’m going to start with you, Jaime Harrison.

What should the message of the Democratic Party be right now?

JAIME HARRISON, Chairman, South Carolina Democratic Party: Well, hopefully tomorrow, Judy, the message is a unified one.

We really need to have a chair right now to help lead the resistance, to push back against Donald Trump and the rubber-stamp Republican Congress that we have right now.

We have seen some unprecedented things over the course of the past few weeks. For the first time in the history of this country, a vice president had to pass a tie-breaking note for a nominee. For the first time, we have someone like Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department leading that effort, an anti-Semite, who — in Steve Bannon in the White House with the president’s ear.

Time and time again, we have had these issues with this administration. And so the Democratic message is, enough is enough. It is time to really put America back on the right track. And that means eventually getting rid of Donald Trump and the Republican Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That is mostly an anti-Trump message.

Symone Sanders, is there a positive message right now for Democrats?

SYMONE SANDERS, Former Sanders Campaign National Press Secretary: Oh, definitely.

Look, I think there is tremendous opportunity for Democrats right now. You can see in the streets all across the country, whether it’s the airports, whether it’s the women’s march, whether it’s town halls during this recess, people, Democrats, Republicans, and independents, are standing up and saying they want to, one, hold their elected officials accountable, and, two, they care about the issues.

And so Democrats need to focus on the overall message of explaining who we are as Democrats what does it mean to be a progressive and how Democrats are going to fight for the American people. I believe we have to beat back Donald Trump, but we did that during the general.

Priorities, their role was to make Donald Trump unpopular. And they succeeded. But we know Hillary Clinton is now not the 45th president of the United States. So, folks want to hear more than the other guy is bad. They want to know what Democrats are going to do for them.

That’s also the challenge that the party sees going forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jaime Harrison, looking forward to the results of the election in November, what’s more important for Democrats now, to focus on winning back working-class white voters or to shore up the Democratic base among African-Americans, among labor union members and so forth?

JAIME HARRISON: Judy, it’s not an either/or thing.

We need to work on and fight for working people in this country. The same issues that working-class African-Americans, working-class Latinos, working-class white people are dealing with, they are the same issues.

They are all struggling to make sure that they put food on the table. They’re all struggling to make sure that there is a living wage, so that they can provide for their family. They’re all struggling in schools that are crumbling, or driving on roads that are falling apart.

And so, if we can address all those issues, as Symone said, if we can come up with what our message is, and not only talk about that message, but demonstrate that, I think we can make great inroads with the American people, regardless of their ethnicity, their background or their religion.

And that’s what has to be the focus over the course of the next few years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Symone Sanders, you agree it’s not either/or, that Democrats have to do both, or is it time to turn more focus to the white working-class Americans, which some Democrats are saying it is?

SYMONE SANDERS: Look, I think it’s a false choice, actually.

And for the Democrats that are saying it’s time to turn more focus toward the white working-class Americans, I would say that they have to take a hard look at our message. Look, Bernie Sanders was extremely successful during the Democratic primary because Bernie talked about the issues.

He talked about the fact that folks want to know, what are you going to do to help me put more money in my pockets, more food on the table, and help keep my kids safe, our communities safe, and good education, good schools, great jobs? That is what the American people want to talk about.

Look, folks in McDowell County, West Virginia, have some of the same issues and concerns as people, working-class urban folks in downtown Chicago. OK?

So, that is where Democrats need to go. And this argument about whether we move to the coasts or we come to the middle, look, I’m from Omaha, Nebraska, OK? And I don’t think many people think of black people when you think of Omaha and Nebraska.


SYMONE SANDERS: But that’s where we need to focus, the message, not necessarily the coasts or the white working-class.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we expect to know tomorrow who the party is going to choose as its new chair.

Yesterday, Jaime Harrison, you — you were a candidate yourself. You have thrown your support to Tom Perez. Just quickly tell us why.

JAIME HARRISON: Well, listen, Judy, I think the next chair has to — one of the reasons why I dropped out is because, in the end of the day, I saw that the votes were not there.

And, you know, it would have been great to go on the floor and get a number of votes. And, you know, I, based on our whip count, was in third place at the time. But that wasn’t for the best interests of this party.

We need to have a very unified message coming out of this vote tomorrow, that we’re all on the same page. And so rather than drag three and four and five ballots so that it looks like the Democratic Party is divided and didn’t know where we were going, I wanted to make sure that we could focus on — there are two people in this race can win.

It’s either going to be Tom Perez of Keith Ellison, who I respect both of them tremendously and known both for a while now. But, in the end of the day, I thought that the next chair has to be a builder, has to be a organizer, has to be a visionary and a fighter. And I thought Tom Perez fit that mold. And that’s why I’m supporting him.


Symone Sanders, you have not endorsed anyone for chair. Do you think both of these, that all the candidates running are equally qualified to lead the party going forward?


I think the Democrats are in great hands, regardless of who wins tomorrow. I think, regardless of who wins, we’re going to have to come together, we’re going to have unify. And each one of those candidates for chair will have real work to do if elected as chair of the Democratic National Committee.

So, look, I’m here for the millennials and the brown folks, as I like to say. And I and my peers and millennials all across this country are poised and ready to hold the next chair accountable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m going to ask each of you, if you boil down the Democratic Party message to one sentence, Jaime Harrison, what is it?

JAIME HARRISON: We are the party that believes in opportunity for all. Regardless of your background, your religion, who you love, we believe that you should all have the ability to live the American dream.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Symone Sanders?

SYMONE SANDERS: I co-sign that.

And I would just like to add we are also the party that is for the people, by the people, and all about the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave it there. And we will also be watching tomorrow’s vote.

Symone Sanders, Jaime Harrison, thanks to both of you.