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Democratic Governors Urge Focus on Message

From their perch on Capitol Hill, Members have long viewed the nation’s governors as a good source for policy ideas rather than political strategy. But after an election year when statehouse Democrats posted far better results than their Washington counterparts, party lawmakers looking for advice on how to win a campaign might want to pay a visit to some state capitals.

In D.C. this week for the National Governors Association winter meeting, Democratic governors brought along some advice for the party’s Congressional leadership, particularly on the elusive goal of developing a unified party message.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a former House Member, said he thought the current Democratic leadership — particularly Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) — was “doing a lot better” on the message front this year after the “disjointedness” of the 2002 campaign.

“I think Daschle has brought [everyone] together,” he said.

Daschle recently began holding weekly meetings with key party constituencies as part of a larger plan to project a more disciplined and unified party message, a goal made more difficult with so many Democratic White House contenders publicly reading from their own playbooks.

“I think there’s too many [presidential candidates], and that breeds division in the party,” Richardson said.

The message task is further complicated by turnover in the House, where Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is still getting acclimated to her new post and trying to develop unity in a diverse Democratic Caucus.

And even if the party sings in perfect harmony, Democrats are still operating in an environment dominated by national security issues that traditionally benefit Republicans.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) noted the “general anxiety Americans feel” about impending war with Iraq and the possibility of another terrorist strike, thus making it harder for the party to get its domestic message heard. “It’s pretty difficult to pierce through the Iraq situation,” he said.

As for the substance of the message, Vilsack suggested that Democrats have been too timid in the face of President Bush’s relentless emphasis on tax cuts rather than new programs. “There is a role for government to play,” Vilsack said. “I think at the national level we haven’t articulated that as well.”

According to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), “The story of the Bush administration has been opportunities missed.”

Congressional Democrats have taken an increasingly aggressive tack in challenging Bush’s credibility, primarily charging that the White House talks up issues like homeland security and education but then fails to adequately fund them.

“That’s a message and not a bad one, but it shouldn’t be the central message,” Rendell said.

The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee said the main question raised by the results of the 2002 Congressional elections was, “Why did we lose when, on the fundamental issues, people agree with us?”

“The Republican Party has become extremely effective at the things that are important in politics — message and money,” he said.

Richardson also cautioned against spending too much time attacking Bush. “We can’t just be negative all the time. We’ve got to have some positive alternatives.”

The New Mexico governor also spoke of the problems Democrats will encounter “unless we get away from the class warfare.” He suggested that Members might benefit from listening to state leaders.

“When I served in the House for 15 years, we never listened to governors,” said Richardson. “Now I feel differently.”

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