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Progressive Candidates to Democratic Leaders: You Can Do Better Than “A Better Deal”

Courtesy Jim Keady

“You wanna learn where America’s at?” Jim Keady asked me. “Stand behind a bar.” The owner of Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown, New Jersey, was venting his frustration with Democrats in Washington, rolling his eyes at the mere mention of their new message rolled out this week: “A Better Deal.” At his restaurant on the Jersey Shore, he’d never sell burgers by saying they were slightly better than the other guy’s. “I got the best burger you’ve ever tasted!” he said, giving me a proper pitch. “I got the coldest beer you’ve ever drank!”

Keady is a Democrat, but too often he feels like his party isn’t connecting with his customers—those fishermen and hunters downing drinks and scarfing seafood, some of whom may well have voted for President Donald Trump. “Part of growing up in the tavern business is you know a good bartender listens,” he explained. “We’ve got to get out there and listen, and it’s not listening to the consultants. It’s not listening to the donor class.” Maybe Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer should come work a shift on the shore, he mused. They might learn something.

Even if Keady never gets Democratic leadership to serve his signature crab clusters, he has a personal stake in rebuilding the party. The former Asbury Park councilman is in Washington, D.C., this week training to run for Congress in New Jersey’s Fourth Congressional District. Keady was one of hundreds of office seekers who turned out for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s candidate boot camp on Thursday. These up-and-coming progressives, many of them energized by Bernie Sanders’s campaign last year, were thrilled to get tips from political pros. But many weren’t exactly embracing the party’s new message, which some members of Congress plan to tout over the August recess. They described it as underwhelming and further proof the party needs to change.

“No matter how polished the words are, they sound somewhat hollow,” said Jenny Marshall, who’s running in North Carolina’s Fifth District. She bristled at Pelosi telling The Washington Post that the new rhetoric “is not a course correction, but it’s a presentation correction.” “You don’t just try to rebrand yourself,” Marshall said. “People see right through it. They see right through it.”

I would like to have leadership that was sincere and genuine and true, with a message they not only believed in, but lived,” Marshall added. “Nancy Pelosi is worth $100 million. To her, $48,000 is a really nice party. So, you know, there’s some disconnect. You can’t make that kind of money and think that you’re still in touch. I mean, Hillary Clinton had the same problem, speaking about poverty in a $5,000 jacket. So, do I want leadership? Yes. Are we going to get it? Not soon. But that’s why we’re here—to eventually put people in place who will be the leaders of the Democratic Party.”

Kyle Horton, another North Carolinian running in the state’s Seventh District, was slightly more generous. “The idea to roll this out to get people refocused on the economy was fresh in a way, to change the conversation, but the slogan in and of itself felt like the same old kind of talking points. It wasn’t telling a story that speaks to people’s personal struggles,” Horton said. She added, “Sometimes, in a big rollout, what gets lost is that personal level that really makes the policy personal to people.... It looks, again, more like politics as usual, and it’s not necessarily the way to move people.”

The PCCC itself has cast “A Better Deal” as a move in the right direction. “It was great to see that they were willing to name villains,” press secretary Kaitlin Sweeney told me. “They were willing to challenge corporate power. We want to see more of that.” And Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, didn’t seem too troubled when asked Thursday about candidates’ criticism of the new slogan. “They’ll all make their choices,” he said.

Not all candidates even think “A Better Deal” was relevant to their races, so they weren’t bothered by a rhetorical rollout that doesn’t affect them. Pam Keith, who’s running for Florida’s Eighteenth Congressional District, told me “it’s important that Democrats think about their messaging, but where [party leaders] landed is not where I land.”

“Message doesn’t come from the top down,” she said. “Message comes from the bottom up.”