Americans want to hear Democrats talk about values, not divisions, says Rep. Bustos

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we begin the first in a series of conversations focusing on the future of the Democratic Party, now out of power in the House, in the Senate, and the White House.

Joining us now, the co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. She is Congresswoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois. She's the only member of the House Democratic leadership team from the Midwest.

Representative Bustos, welcome to the program.

REP. CHERI BUSTOS, D-Ill.: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, before we talk about the party, the Democratic Party, let me just ask you, having watched and listened to that report from Virginia, such conflicting opinions about the Affordable Care Act.

How can you know the Democratic Party's position is right, when people are so conflicted over it?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Well, I don't know if we're entirely right.

I think the way we need to look at the Affordable Care Act is, while it's made some tremendous improvement in people's lives, there is a lot of work we need to do still. Prescription drug prices are too high and unaffordable for too many people. Co-pays, deductibles and premiums are too high for too many people.

And the folks who were just talking on the show demonstrate that. Actually, what resonated the most with me was right at the end of the story, when you had people saying, come here, look us in the eye, talk to us, listen to us.

And that is everything to do with what we need to do as Democrats going forward. If we ever want to win back the majority in 2018, that's exactly what we need to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's talk about that.

You represent your district, the 17th District of Illinois, northwestern part of the state. You won by, what, 20 points last fall reelection. Donald Trump also won by, what, just a fraction of a point, but he won.

What was it in his message that appealed to your voters?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Well, we have communities all over the Central and Northwestern Illinois, the area that I represent, that have lost their jobs to outsourcing.

Ag and manufacturing are the two economic drivers in my congressional district. And so when you have people who lost their jobs — one example was the Maytag plant in Galesburg, Illinois. It was 13 years ago this September when Maytag sent every one of their last jobs over to Mexico.

And yet, all these years later, the people who had these jobs still haven't recovered the wages to the same level they did before.

I talked to the people who then took another job who then ended up being outsourced and now are working, for instance, as a clerk in a grocery store making half what they did a dozen years ago.

So, that's what resonated. When people can hearken back to making America great again, that resonated with people who have lost their jobs and who aren't making what they did before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you have been saying it's not enough for Democrats to be against Donald Trump. It's clear Democrats disagree with him on health care, on the Russia story, and on and on.

What is it that Democrats should be saying?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: I think we should be talking nonstop about jobs and the economy.

We have the right policies. We have a whole make-it-in-America package that focuses on making products in America. We have job retraining programs. We have the right — we have the right programs, but we talk about things that are more divisive than they draw us together.

I think if we talk about our values and what we stand for as Democrats, making sure that hardworking men and women have a chance to succeed — when I go home and listen to people, that's what they want us to focus on, not things that divide people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a single message? Is it a combination of messages, a vision that the Democratic Party has that's not being spoken?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Well, what we're doing, kind of a behind-the-scenes look at it, we are working with the Senate, the House.

We're also making sure that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is informed about what we're doing, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

I'm told that this is the first time where we have really all worked together on this. In my role in policy communications, we have met with more than 150 of our Democratic colleagues. We have met with all the major caucuses, from the Congressional Black Caucus, the Progressives, the Blue Dogs, the New Dems.

And this is a very much bottoms-up report, our coalescence of ideas. But what we will do is, this will all be about jobs and the economy. We will roll this out this month. And then when all these members, congressional members, go back home for the August district work period, we they be talking about jobs and economy, and we will be united on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that's a little bit about the process, but in terms of the vision, what is the vision of the party for the country?

When you say jobs and the economy — and I want to bring in or mention something else you have been saying, is you have said to your fellow Democrats, don't talk down to voters. Make sure they know you respect them.

What is the message there?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Well, the message is, is that we may be members of Congress. It just means that we have a different job. We're no better, no worse than anybody else. It's just a different job.

I'm blessed by the fact that I was a newspaper reporter, and I have been in the homes in some of the worst neighborhoods, the toughest neighborhoods of my region, to, you know, the country club lot in life.

And so I'm comfortable talking to any of those people. And I'm also — I know that I'm no better or no worse than any of them.

But back to your question about what is it about jobs and the economy, that we're going to make sure that Social Security is strong and will grow stronger. And we're not going to cut benefits. That's not something we stand for.

I gave my mom a call today and she said, what are they doing to my health care? She's 84 years old. We want to make sure that Medicare is strong and is not facing financial difficulty. We want to make sure that pensions people that they have paid into are not sacrificed. We have got all the right policies, but we have got to talk about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is it a matter of not changing or cutting back on government programs? Is that the Democrats' idea?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: I don't think government is the entire answer, but people want to know that their member of Congress is going to Washington and fighting for them, that we don't view that everybody through the lens that it's all partisan and we can't work with Republicans.

I know the people of my congressional district send me to Washington and expect me to get a job done. They want me to work hard, because I make a pretty good wage, especially in comparison to a lot of families. They want me to fight for them if there's a fight to be had. And they want me to get results.

And I don't think that's so much different, whether you're in San Francisco or New York City or Chicago. I think that's what people want in their members of Congress. And that's what, frankly, they deserve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just finally, who is the leader of the Democratic Party right now?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Who is the leader?

Well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it. On the House side, it's Nancy Pelosi. On the Senate side, it's Chuck Schumer. At the DCCC, at the DCCC …

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: The congressional committee.

(CROSSTALK)

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Yes, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

And then it's Tom Perez at the Democratic National Committee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it's a group of people?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Yes, it's a group of people.

But I think we also have a lot of young emerging leaders who, in time, will take different roles. I'm proud of the fact that I sit at the leadership table now.

The fact that I'm the only Midwesterner, I would like a little more company sitting around the table. I think we're practical in the Midwest, and I would like to see a little more of us sitting at the leadership table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, you were just named by the Campaign Committee the Democratic — the chairwoman of the Heartland Engagement Committee.

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, thank you very much.

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.

REP. CHERI BUSTOS: Thank you.