Democrat confusion: American voters like the issues they talk about, but not always the party itself

By Charles Babington

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Cambridge, Md. Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. The president said top priorities for Congress should be increasing the minimum wage and reforming immigration. Obama told a House Democratic retreat Friday that the party needs to stand up for the American dream of getting ahead.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — Congressional Democrats held a retreat this week seeking inspiration. But they left as befuddled as ever by an America that arguably likes their issues but not always the party.

This fall's elections seem likely to leave Democrats in the House minority, and may rob them of their Senate majority. Republicans hope to gain six net seats to control the Senate.

At a three-day retreat by the Chesapeake Bay, House Democrats struggled to explain this political landscape while also insisting the public supports their agenda on immigration, income, women's rights and other priorities. Friday pep talks by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden did little to solve the riddle.

Obama said Congress should act on issues "where the American people are on our side." He said those include a higher federal minimum wage and "smart immigration policy" that would bring people "out of the shadows."

Biden, who spoke ahead of the president, went further. "On every major issue," he said, "the American people agree with the Democratic Party."

Biden cited Democratic positions on the minimum wage, debt ceiling, same-sex marriage, early childhood education, infrastructure spending and "pay equity" for women. He said 90 percent of Americans support stricter background checks on gun buyers, an issue that went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, let alone the GOP-run House.

"I can't think of a time when the issues that most affect the American people, most affect the middle class, overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly, they support us," Biden said.

Republicans scoff at such sentiments. They note that voters have handed them control of the House and the governorships of swing states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Biden's comments reflect "a 50,000-foot view" rather than political realities on the ground in key states that will determine control of the Senate, said GOP consultant Brian Walsh.

"What's popular in California isn't necessarily popular in Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina," he said. Those are among the seven states that Obama lost in 2012 and where Democrats are trying to protect Senate seats this fall.

The Democrats' happy talk in Maryland, Walsh said, ignores the fact that Obama's health care overhaul "is deeply unpopular in those states."

Polls suggest that Americans care more about the health care law — which divides them — and pocketbook issues than some of the topics that dominated the Democrats' retreat.

An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll on government priorities for 2014 found that, in general, the issues Democrats cite as their strong points — including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits and immigration — aren't particularly important to people.

Asked to list the top 10 issues they'd like government to act on this year, 52 percent mentioned the health care overhaul, while just 7 percent named the minimum wage or other wage issues. And 28 percent mentioned immigration.

Unemployment ranked near the top of issues for the government to tackle, at 42 percent. But only one of the 1,141 adults surveyed mentioned extending unemployment benefits, a proposal that seems popular but not highly important.

Some Democrats say the party often does a poor messaging job, which helps explain why supposedly popular issues don't always translate into election wins. Particularly frustrating, they say, is Republicans' ability to portray the pre-Obama health care system as far superior to the nation's new health insurance, when in fact many Americans strongly criticized it in 2008.

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