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Democrats are recrafting their message. Will they find the right messengers?

July 24, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR join Judy Woodruff to discuss the path ahead for the Democratic Party, a new communications chief for the White House after a dramatic shake-up, plus President Trump puts pressure on Republicans on passing health care reform and publicly criticizes Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As I was starting to say, one clear challenge facing Democrats and Republicans, staying on message, when the president can so quickly stir up a new controversy.

So, will a shakeup in the White House communications team change all that?

Our Politics Monday duo is here to weigh in, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Tamara Keith of NPR.

But because you both were sitting here as I was just talking to Tom Perez, Tam, let’s start by talking about that.

What do you make of the Democrats’ effort now? You hear him saying, we’re trying to get back to business here, to go to appeal to voters where they are.

TAMARA KEITH, National Public Radio: Yes.

There was a struggle when I covered the Clinton campaign that they had, which he was sort of getting at a little bit, which is the thing where they would want to talk about issues, they would want to talk about policy, they would want to have an affirmative message, and then Donald Trump would do something and they would just slip back into being the opposition to the other person who is running for president.

And Democrats, I think, struggle with that now in, you know, are they the resistance or are they for something? And today was an effort to sort of begin talking about what they are for, at the same time they’re also talking about what they’re against still.

WATCH: Trump calls Obamacare ‘death,’ urges GOP to ‘do the right thing’

JUDY WOODRUFF: What they’re against.

Amy, can they do this?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Yes, I think that’s very doable.

The biggest challenge for Democrats — I think we discussed this the last time — is that they’re the out party, so they don’t set the agenda. The Republicans set the agenda. They have to respond to an agenda that’s being set by the Republican Party.

The other question is not just so much about the message. They can put together a big messaging strategy, but the messenger matters. And in 2016, it was pretty clear that the messenger that Democrats had wasn’t seen as believable on a lot of these issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hillary Clinton.

AMY WALTER: The Hillary Clinton campaign had — how many reams of policy papers did you go through, Tam, about all of these issues?

TAMARA KEITH: I think there were like 10,000 pages of policy …

(CROSSTALK)

AMY WALTER: It’s not that she didn’t and the campaign didn’t have a plan on the economy.

(CROSSTALK)

AMY WALTER: I think it was a million words.

But not like they didn’t have a plan for the economy. It’s that the messenger wasn’t seen as an effective messenger or believable messenger.

So, the challenge, I think, for Democrats right now going into the midterm election is finding candidates who fit the districts, who have a message that fits their specific area, and that they’re believable, that they’re authentic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they say they are — they are saying they recruiting more people to run, at least at the congressional level.

AMY WALTER: And they are. They are. At the congressional level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you just heard Tom Perez talking about the state and local races, too.

AMY WALTER: It’s always the challenge and the good and the bad.

You have tons of candidates now on the Democratic side either running or talking about running. That means big primaries and that means you don’t know who’s going to come out of a primary, potentially the candidate who doesn’t fit as the right messenger for that district.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning?

AMY WALTER: Meaning that you get somebody in a district that fits that district really well, but loses in a 10- or eight-way primary to a different kind of Democratic candidate. And there is not much that the party can do about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they’re going to try, aren’t they, Tam? Because, right now, Tom Perez cited this poll that shows most people think all the Democrats stand for or mostly what they stand for is being against Donald Trump.

TAMARA KEITH: And they have been pretty loudly against Donald Trump, but you know what?

It’s a long way out from that midterm election. And there’s a lot of time to actually hear a message. We don’t even know who the candidates are at this point, and the candidates do matter, as Amy says.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, speaking of Donald Trump, Amy Walter, he chose a new communications director late last week, as press secretary and communications director Sean Spicer has now left the White House.

Anthony Scaramucci out on all the weekend talk shows, saying he loves this president, and that they’re going to have a new approach, and they’re going to be positive and they’re going to do well.

AMY WALTER: The new approach is a lot like the old approach, which is, let Donald Trump be Donald Trump. You’re not going to manage Trump. I’m not going to micromanage his Twitter account. What works best is when Donald Trump works in the mode that he likes to operate in, as he did in the 2016 campaign.

The challenge, of course, with any communications shakeup at the White House is that we know that there is one communications director at the White House, and his name is Donald J. Trump. It doesn’t matter who else gets a title over at the White House.

So, if you think what’s been working right now at the White House has been effective or what they’re doing at the White House has been effective, then you’re going to keep — you’re going to say that’s OK.

But the fact is, their legislative agenda is stalled. That hasn’t been working. Letting Donald Trump be Donald Trump hasn’t helped with his approval ratings. They’re stuck now somewhere at 40 percent. As we just discussed, it’s not helping in terms of the 2018 midterm elections.

Democrats are energized, Republicans not as energized. The strategy is basically to keep doing things the way that we have been doing them, but, right now, six months in, it hasn’t been particularly effective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does this look to somebody who covers the White House all the time, Tam?

TAMARA KEITH: It looks like there’s a new person who, as you said, he talks about loving Donald Trump, about, you know — he definitely will be someone who is a salesman for the president’s message.

But if you look at the Sunday show appearances, you had Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is the new press secretary, saying one thing. You had Scaramucci saying another thing. And then you had the president of the United States tweeting something somewhere in between.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re still trying to figure this out.

One of the things going on in the tweeting, Amy, is the president continuing to criticize or to say to Republicans, you have got to come on board with health care. He’s been tweeting about it just a few minutes ago.

AMY WALTER: He’s been tweeting about it.

And then, of course, he stood in the White House today and basically put an ultimatum in front of his party that said, you are either with me or you’re not. And the marker has been put right there.

And so the choice for Republicans tomorrow is, are they going to defy their president, after saying — after he told them this will be in defiance of me?

JUDY WOODRUFF: He said there are going to be consequences if we don’t — if you don’t support this.

TAMARA KEITH: Meanwhile, he was talking about members of his own party as they, as if it was not — as if they weren’t part of the same team.

And he was highly critical of senators, saying, if you don’t do this, then you’re breaking a promise and there are consequences. And he made a tiny little aside sort of indicating that he wanted voters to call their senators or get in touch or make it painful for their senators, which is a turn.

It’s him, the president, publicly advocating for a piece of legislation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, he’s also putting pressure on his own attorney general, Amy, in just a few seconds, saying our beleaguered A.G.

If you’re Jeff Sessions, what are you thinking right now?

(LAUGHTER)

AMY WALTER: Right.

As with many people in the Trump administration, if you work for him, you have to know that your job is always precarious. There is no ultimate loyalty if you work there. And it’s never clear whether you’re safe or not safe with this president in your job at the White House.

TAMARA KEITH: And Sessions was at lunch at the White House today and didn’t see the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hmm. Well, we will leave it at that, Politics Monday.

Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, thank you both.

AMY WALTER: You’re welcome.

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