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Neal: Democratic Party Needs a 'Reset'
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
09:26PM / Tuesday, January 17, 2017
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U.S. Rep. Richard Neal speaks with MCLA students on Tuesday.

Neal took questions from the audience and told them they're biggest influence beyond voting was heading to New Hampshire in presidential elections.

Neal speaks with MCLA President Jamie Birge and Executive Vice President Denise Richardello.



The stop at MCLA was one of several the congressman made in North Berkshire.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Democratic Party can't "sugarcoat" its disastrous situation, says U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.

And the pain lies deeper than the loss of the presidency and failure to make inroads in the Republican-controlled Congress.

"Time for a reset," he said, pointing out that "the people we're losing used to be for us."

Nearly a third of House Democrats come from three states: Massachusetts, New York and California.

"In the last eight years, all election cycles for Congress, we have lost 62 House seats, 15 Senate seats," Neal said at a session at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on Tuesday. "Two-thirds of the governors now in America are Republican and we have lost, during these eight years, more than 1,000 legislative seats across the country."

While the 14-term congressman hasn't decided who he'll back for Democratic National Party chairman, he does know what he wants to hear from the candidates.

"How are you going to build a national party?" he said. "The party I signed up for was a national party and if we're going to cleave to a more narrow base, I don't see us winning national elections."

Neal was speaking to about 40 faculty members and students at MCLA in the afternoon, wrapping up a North County visit that began at Hoosac Valley High School and included teaching a class at Williams College and lunch with Mayor Richard Alcombright.

Much of his talk overlapped with the one earlier in the day, including aspects of contemporary polarized politics, confirmation bias and opinion reporting, his decision to attend the inauguration on Friday and the fight to maintain outgoing President Obama's signature legacy in the Affordable Care Act.

But the Springfield Democrat also touched on how his party has to change messaging to re-engage with its base to overcome an electoral map that's turned a bright red. Even though Hillary Clinton won nearly three million more votes total, she lost three states by 77,000 votes and the Electoral College with them.

Some of that rebuilding, Neal said, will be addressing the changing nature of the workplace in an age of globalization "that's not going to retreat."

The postwar norm had been a worker participation rate of 66 percent, he said, or about two out of three Americans. That's dropped to 62.7 percent.

"The nature of the workforce in America is changing. People wonder why there's such great anger out there," he said. "Part of the anger is that wages have been flatlined now for 12 years and employers, as much as we want them to, they're not going to hire one more employee than they need. And the robot is going to have more of a role so we need to start figuring out how to respond to that challenge."

Union participation has declined from the Roosevelt era, when one out of three households had a union member. It's now closer to 12 percent of American workers and about evenly split between public and private.

And the type of work has changed, demanding a different skill set. "Right now, 16,000 precision manufacturing jobs that average $65,000 a year go unanswered" in New England, Neal said, based on a 2015 Deloitte-New England Council study.

"In places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the old industrial heartland of the country, there are large numbers of people who are working two jobs who would like to be working one," he said.

The Democrats had promised jobs, access to health and education, equity and growth for years. But it not only lost borderline states, it has lost what were once deep-blue states like West Virginia. Former Gov. Michael Dukakis won the state, as did Bill Clinton twice. But Hillary Clinton only managed 27 percent of the vote.

"Many of those people came to see us as no longer having the message even though they had grown up in households that had always supported us," Neal said. "Now they've come to believe that part of that promise has altered. ... I think reconnecting with them is going to be long and it's going to be tedious, but we've got to do it."

Some of that work begins the Monday after the inauguration as Congress takes on the repeal of ACA, or ObamaCare. And begins looking at Medicare and taxes — all of which will be in the House Ways and Means Committee, of which Neal is a member.

Most American like aspects of the ACA, even if they don't care for the purchasing mandate, he said. And he believes the Democrats can make an argument over Medicare, which millions of American have paid into, and focusing tax cuts on the middle class.

"I think those are the kinds of places where we ought to draw them into the battle," Neal said. "I think we should take assertive and responsible positions."

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