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House Democrats struggle in Trump’s news cycle

When the House took the biggest vote on gun reform in 25 years, headlines were instead trained on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. | Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images

House Democrats can’t escape Trumpmania.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues are living under a harsh new reality fueled by the rise of Donald Trump — a scandal-driven climate with a five-minute news cycle that has proven impossible to control.

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“When have we ever had a presidency when the news cycle is dictated in the morning by what he tweets?” asked Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). “You’re working overtime to make your case, and it’s like pushing the bean uphill, you realize what a difficult job it is in this environment.”

Since the start of their majority, House Democrats have largely struggled to push their message past the daily drumbeat of Trump tweets and scandals. But as House Republicans found out to their own detriment, the media now moves at the speed of Trump while Democrats are forced to legislate at the speed of Congress.

The result is a muddled message that has stoked anxiety among dozens of new members serving in red districts who are increasingly desperate to talk about their agenda. It’s also left senior Democrats worried about how they will steer the party as Trump moves into his reelection campaign.

“With social media, with 24 hour news, with Donald Trump, we’re learning to do more than one thing,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said. “We’ve got to address these extraneous issues but still understand that the key is doing our legislative work.”

It’s not all Trump’s fault. Some of the distractions have come from the Democrats’ own ranks: superstar freshman like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and their army of Twitter followers — which lawmakers say is another symptom of the surge in personality-based politics.

“I think if you read the papers and watch television and you ask who are the new members of Congress, you come up with three names,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday.

It’s a climate that Democrats say feels vastly different from the last time they swept into power in 2006 and helps explain their initial difficulties as a new majority.

At first, House Democrats were overwhelmed by the 35-day shutdown. Since then, Pelosi and her top deputies have begun muscling through a robust policy agenda, but many rank-and-file Democrats fear their policies aren’t shaping the media narrative.

The House took the biggest vote on gun reform in 25 years, but headlines were instead trained on Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. The House voted on a massive ethics reform package, but it was eclipsed by an internal dispute over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments criticizing pro-Israel advocates.

“I don’t think 15 years ago an inappropriate comment by a freshman member of Congress would have triggered an entire week of national conversation. It would’ve been a one day story at most,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), referring to last week’s furor over Omar (D-Minn.).

“He’s brought a superficiality and entertainment factor to politics,” Khanna said of Trump.

Some of the headaches could have been avoided, lawmakers say. For instance, the House Judiciary Committee could have scheduled its much-anticipated hearing with Trump’s former lawyer and fixer on a day when the House wasn’t considering its first gun control package in two decades.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler

But plenty of other issues have come from within the Democratic caucus itself, including the outsize influence from newly elected liberals like Tlaib, who has drawn headlines since she declared that she wanted to “impeach the motherf—er.”

“It is absolutely, dramatically different,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, an eight-term Democrat from Missouri, said.

“Trump has come across in such a way that it has set a flame in the most liberal component of the Democratic Party, which has been previously quiet but still extremely liberal,” Cleaver added. “They have become so offended that it has put pressure on the party’s structure — our infrastructure — that I have not seen.”

Pelosi appears aware of how much has changed in the media environment since she last held the speaker’s gavel.

On Monday, she actively declared that she would “make news” by distancing herself from impeachment.

“She was able to seize the day, so to speak,” Larson said of Pelosi. “She refocused the news cycle from where it was, and where it was headed… that’s where senior leadership like that, and intelligence, comes in.”

A senior Democratic aide noted that with the House taking up a resolution this week to make the Mueller report public, the discussion of impeachment was inevitable.

“So the timing of her news-popping was perfect,” the aide said.

Still, while the comments could provide a long-term benefit to moderates by giving them cover on impeachment, the decision divided Democrats and threw the party somewhat off course.

Democrats arrived at the Capitol this week intent on righting the course after a difficult few days of internal disputes within their party. They were eager to unveil one bill that would protect more than 2 million “Dreamers” from being deported and another devoted to expanding LGBT rights.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth

But senior Democrats like House Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries instead faced a barrage of questions from reporters Tuesday asking him to simultaneously elaborate on, defend and dissect Pelosi’s comments that she’s against impeaching Trump because he’s “not worth it.”

“Donald Trump is like the Wizard of Oz. He creates all this imagery — this chaos, this crisis, this confusion,” said Jeffries, the No. 5 Democrat, at his weekly press conference meant to set the Democratic narrative for the week. “No, that’s the Trump administration for the last two years.”

After calmly answering several of the impeachment related questions, Jeffries began to tick off a lengthy list of what he saw as House Democrats’ recent accomplishments, from besting Trump on the shutdown to moving the first major gun control legislation in decades.

“If you were to have read the reviews over the last week, you would think we are mired in chaos, crisis and confusion,” Jeffries said as he started to work his way through the list, ending with this week’s introduction of major bills dealing with immigration and LGBT equality.

“Does that sound like chaos, crisis and confusion?” Jeffries went on. “Next question.”

Top Democrats say they’re urging members to line up behind the party, exercising the same kind of message discipline that helped Democrats win back the House. But they also acknowledge that’s difficult, particularly for the 60-plus freshmen arriving in Washington for the first time, many without prior legislative experience.

“I think a lot of people think because we were so focused [during the campaign], we didn’t go with every little distraction that came our way, that we got over the finish line successfully,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who leads the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “Okay fast forward, now we’re sworn in as a new session of Congress, and there are constant distractions.”

Rep. David Cicilline, who leads the House Democrats’ messaging strategy, said he’s been personally urging his colleagues to deploy campaign-style tactics — “simplicity plus repetition” — to hammer home this year’s agenda.

“We don’t obviously have the ability to control the news cycle,” Cicilline said. “It’s challenging, but it’s the nature of the work we’re in.“

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