A little over a year from the midterm elections, one of the highest-ranking members of the U.S. House addressed the future of the Democratic party in a Saturday morning interview at the Texas Tribune Festival.
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, the U.S. House minority whip, talked about Democratic candidate recruitment, grumblings about his place in an aging U.S. House leadership structure, and Democratic chances in the 2018 midterms. His recurring message to the Austin crowd: Future Democratic candidates need to connect to the average American.
"We're a broad-tent party," Hoyer said in an interview with native Texan and New York Times Magazine writer Robert Draper.
Hoyer alluded to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton when he said Democratic comments about "deplorables" and putting "a lot of coal miners out of work" were "dumb things" to say.
"Hillary did not connect. I really like Hillary. I think she would have been an excellent president. I campaigned very hard for her. I don't think she connected, unlike Bill Clinton, who connected," he said. "People just didn't think she got them, and I think that was a problem, but that was a personal problem."
When asked about the comments of one of his proteges, a Rust Belt Democratic congresswoman named Cheri Bustos, who said the party needed to avoid an issues-based litmus test when selecting House nominees, Hoyer backed her.
"I'm with Cheri Bustos. [U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy]Pelosi is with Cheri Bustos," he said.
In that context, Hoyer pushed back on high-profile Democratic calls to draw a line in the sand on abortion. Hoyer concurred with Pelosi's pushback on the idea of excluding pro-life Democrats from the party: "I'm the whip. We do not whip that issue."
Now that U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has declined to support the newest Republican effort to repeal former President Obama's 2010 health care law, Hoyer said, "It appears they are not going to be able to repeal the Affordable Care Act."
Hoyer expressed frustration with his House leadership counterparts, saying so far they show an unwillingness to work in a bipartisan manner.
"There's no bipartisanship right now. I've reached out to [U.S. House Speaker] Paul Ryan" on fiscal sustainability issues. "I haven't had success yet, but I'm going to keep trying."
"There is no doubt that redistricting has made the switches more difficult," Hoyer said. But, he noted, voters are increasingly showing a preference for the generic Democratic brand over the Republicans.
Hoyer and Pelosi are widely known around the U.S. Capitol to share an effective but rivalrous relationship within the Democratic caucus. On Saturday morning, Hoyer was all praise for Pelosi, calling her "as good as it gets."
Pelosi, Hoyer and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina make up the power triumvirate of House Democratic leadership. All three are over 70 years old, and for well over a decade now there has been a great deal of consternation in the younger Democratic ranks in the U.S. House over how to move up in committee assignments and in leadership.
Democrats emphasize seniority in those decisions far more than Republicans, who implement term limits on committee chairmanships.
"The seniority system is not sacrosanct," Hoyer said, adding that it is one factor among many in how the caucus makes decisions about leadership.
That said, an audience member pushed Hoyer to consider stepping back from his own leadership post in order to provide opportunities for younger members.
"I don’t think most members think I’ve slowed down," Hoyer said. "I travel a lot. I raise a lot of money for members. I think I articulate our message reasonably well on television."
"But I’ve seen members who stay too long. I’m not going to stay too long. When my body tells me, 'You're not on top of it,' I'm leaving. I’m not going, probably, to be around too much longer anyway."