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.
Conversations with top Democrats at the retreat also suggested they are better at naming popular issues than devising a coherent strategy for shaping them into winning campaign strategies.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters that most Americans support her party's agenda for women. It includes better childhood education, affordable childcare and "equal pay for equal work." But Pelosi demurred when asked to explain why, in light of that, Democrats aren't on a stronger track in midterm elections.
"This is about policy, this is about people," she said. "We'll leave the third P, politics, to another day."
Democrats disagree on how to discuss the growing divide between high-income earners and middle-class workers whose wages have largely stayed flat for many years. One top Democratic lawmaker, who would discuss the sensitive issue only on condition of anonymity, said he is incensed when his party's candidates denounce "income equality," because many voters see it as contrary to the American dream of advancing and benefiting from hard work.
Yet Biden jumped right in Friday. "They talk about the fact that we shouldn't be talking about income inequality," he told House Democrats. "I think it would be a sin if we didn't talk about income inequality."
When he was elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden said, "a CEO made about 25 times more than the lowest-paid employee." Now, he said, it's 240 times greater.
Democrats also showed divisions on which GOP-blocked initiatives to highlight later this month. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Democrats to start a "discharge petition" to try to force House Republican leaders to bring a Senate-passed immigration bill to a House vote.
But Pelosi announced this week the Democrats' discharge effort will focus on a bid to raise the minimum wage instead.
Any successful discharge petition would require Democrats — who hold 200 of the House's 435 seats — to stay united and to gain nearly two dozen Republican signatures, to reach a majority.
That's a tough goal in a chamber controlled by Republicans, who say they are confident about November's elections, no matter how often Democrats say the public is on their side.
Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report. Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.
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