After last November’s election, Democrats in Congress are at our lowest numbers since President Herbert Hoover. This week’s House Democratic Caucus retreat offers us a chance to take a hard look at ourselves to see why. 

Democratic turnout was even lower than many expected in an off year. It’s clear that the plans and positions our party was selling weren’t compelling enough to get our own core constituencies out of the house to vote. And we failed to convince independents that we are the party they can trust to grow the economy and keep high-quality jobs here at home. 

Polls show that Democrats were right on many issues important to Americans: education, the environment, and equality. And people agree with our message of economic fairness, but polls also show that voters don’t trust us to deal with the economy, and they don’t see our message as relevant to their futures.  

Despite recent economic good news, too many Americans are working harder than ever before yet still struggling to make ends meet, buy a home, or send their kids to college. Middle-class families are waiting for either party to propose a credible plan to address their lack of wage growth and opportunity. Young voters are skeptical of government in general and in particular see us as focused on the past rather than the future. Most 20-somethings are not concerned about Social Security and Medicare and, even if they are thinking about it at all, doubt that we are fiscally responsible enough make sure it will still be solvent when they do need it.  

Democrats understand that government has and can continue to be a positive force for Americans’ well-being. But after the failed health care website, the fumbled Ebola protocols, and the fiasco at the Department of Veterans Affairs, our party in government risks being dismissed as the party of bad government. Going forward, Democrats have to challenge incompetence and waste in government honestly and aggressively. We need to embrace regulatory reforms that achieve high standards, but with minimized disruption to businesses large and small. 

And our policy agenda needs to focus on our economic future through education, tax reform, environmental quality, and rebuilding our infrastructure. In an increasingly brain-powered global economy we need the best and brightest students and workers in the world. We need a simpler, more efficient tax code that incentivizes companies to bring overseas profits home so they can be invested here. We need to be making investments in infrastructure at border crossings and our ports to facilitate trade, and working toward bipartisan, long-term, forward-thinking solutions on the transportation trust fund that put it on the path toward sustainability. 

If Democrats can’t earn back the trust of Americans, by demonstrating that we have a plan to make government work and grow the economy, we will continue to lose elections, and we will be powerless to ensure future generations have access to the American Dream. 

Appeared in The Hill 1/28/15