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Democrats Coping, Plotting

As They Retool Their Message for 2004, House Democrats Are Still Preparing to Argue ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’

Concerned that the lack of a unified message hampered their last attempt to retake control of the House and that the crowded presidential primary field offers too many dissonant voices to voters, Democrats are embarking on a wide-scale re-examination of their legislative priorities in hopes of reversing their electoral fortunes next year.

An ongoing project consisting of focus groups and targeted polling, sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is at the core of this effort. But it also alters the targeting and fundraising strategy in the wake of campaign finance reforms passed in the previous Congress.

“If we don’t define what we stand for, the Republicans will do it for us and not in a favorable way,” said Brendan Daly, communications director for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

The DCCC’s work comes in response to complaints by Members after the 2002 cycle that House Democrats failed to put forward a cohesive national message, which, some argued, led to their six-seat loss. It is important to note, however, that after November 2000, Members criticized the DCCC’s attempts to nationalize that election.

And even as the party seeks to recraft its message, questions and challenges remain.

One senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was “delusional to think that the minority party can communicate a message to 250 million Americans.”

“We substitute message for strategy,” the source added.

Alan Secrest, a prominent Democratic pollster, said the message is not what ails the party, but rather an inability to conduct strong campaigns in key districts.

“The problem isn’t that we don’t run as Democrats, it’s that we don’t run effectively as Democrats,” he said.

The debate within the party is an acknowledgment that retaking control of the House in 2004 is a difficult proposition for Democrats without a strong national wind behind them and that a long-term strategy is needed to deliver them the majority.

The disagreement over what that strategy should be reflects the vacuum left by the six-seat loss in the 2002 elections, which served as a symbolic final chapter in the party’s four-cycle push to win the handful of seats necessary to take back the House.

In an attempt to fill that void and to energize Members downtrodden after a decade in the minority, the DCCC has developed a project designed to fine-tune the way their Members talk to persuadable voters.

Diane Feldman, Fred Yang, Al Quinlan, Anna Greenberg and Celinda Lake — five of the party’s well-established pollsters — conducted a series of 11 focus groups in six targeted House districts to test a variety of messages.

The pollsters took the results of the focus groups and used them as the basis for a survey that sampled voters in the 42 districts the DCCC is hoping to contest in 2004.

House Democratic leaders will present the poll’s findings to the Caucus this month in order to provide the caucus a basic framework to discuss their issues with constituents and the media., said DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards.

One senior Democratic House aide said that the message presented to the Caucus is likely to revolve around “jobs, jobs, jobs,” comparing the current political environment to that of the 1992 cycle; Democrats lost 10 House seats that year even though Bill Clinton was elected president.

“It really is the economy, stupid,” said the source, echoing one of the key mantras of the Clinton campaign.

The expected return to the 1992 economic message follows four cycles in which Democrats were unable to retake the majority while touting health care and seniors’ issues.

After losing their 40-year House majority in the tidal wave election of 1994, Democrats picked up eight seats in 1996 and in 1998 they added five more, bringing the composition of the House to 223 Republicans, 211 Democrats and two Independents who split their support between the parties.

Democrats entered 2000 with a generally favorable political climate and only six seats separating the two parties. But Vice President Al Gore’s populist message failed to resonate in a number of swing districts and Republicans were able to co-opt key Democratic talking points, especially on the issue of prescription drugs.

Although Democrats gained another seat in 2000, the sentiment coming out of the election was that they had lost their best chance for the majority and might not see it again for quite some time.

While many Members and Democratic strategists quickly pivoted to pick up the “take back the House” mantra in 2002, the die for that election was largely cast in 2001 during the nationwide process of redrawing Congressional lines. Redistricting across the country by and large protected incumbents of both parties, cleaving the number of potentially competitive seats to roughly 25 for 2002.

With such a small playing field, Democrats needed to sweep nearly every targeted race, but President Bush barnstormed the country to ensure they would come nowhere close, and they lost six seats.

Even the most optimistic of Democratic strategists admit that redistricting created a playing field advantageous to the majority party. Mark Gersh, Washington director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, wrote in a recent article for Blueprint magazine that “[redistricting] gave Republicans an advantage that will be difficult for Democrats to overcome before the next decennial redistricting.”

Gersh was decidedly more upbeat, however, in an interview, saying that “there are enough districts to win but [the DCCC] has to find candidates in districts that have a tendency to support Democrats in a presidential race.”

There are 30 seats currently held by Republican Members where Gore defeated Bush in 2000, largely concentrated on the two coasts and in the suburban Midwest, according to Gersh.

“If you expand the playing field to get enough of [those seats], some [Republicans] will lose,” Gersh added.

With this in mind, DCCC officials have placed a great degree of emphasis early in the cycle on recruiting more heavily in so-called “cusp” races in which Democratic performance is strong but a Republican incumbent has been entrenched.

Greg Speed, a spokesman for the DCCC, said the organization is actively recruiting in 50 districts, a large increase over the net cast in past cycles.

“By expanding the playing field and putting more candidates in races, you are left with more options to look at where Republicans may be running weak,” he said.

One such target is Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), who represents a Buffalo-based district that is one of the most Democratic performing seats currently held by a Republican.

In 2000, Quinn took 67 percent of the vote even as his district delivered Gore a 12-point victory over Bush. After redistricting made his seat slightly more Republican, Quinn took 69 percent in 2002.

Nevertheless, a recent front-page story in Quinn’s hometown paper notes that he supported the tax-cut packages forwarded by Bush during the past two years and backed the Republican prescription drug legislation.

“The extremism and arrogance of the leaders in the House certainly aids us in going after Republican Members in Democratic-leaning and marginal districts,” Speed said.

Democrats do not yet have a candidate to run against Quinn, however.

Speed’s comments speak to a growing line of thought among Democratic insiders that by portraying Republicans as heavy-handed in their management of the majority, they may be able to change the way crucial swing voters perceive the GOP. Several incidents in recent months, Democrats argue, advance this argument.

At the top of the list is Rep. Bill Thomas’ (R-Calif.) decision to call Capitol Police after Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee left a hearing in protest. Thomas later apologized in front of the full House but several Democrats leaders — led by Pelosi — insisted that the issue was not resolved.

A successful Republican redrawing of Colorado’s Congressional lines as well as the protracted battle to restructure the map in Texas are cited as further evidence of this alleged abuse of power.

Democrats believe the ongoing effort to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D) is yet another example of Republicans’ willful disregard for the voters.

In some ways, Democratic attempts to cast Republicans as the bullying majority party mirror the campaign engineered by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that eventually led to the GOP taking control of the House in 1995 after four decades in the minority.

Gingrich, then Minority Whip, led a public relations assault on the ethics of then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), which led to Wright’s eventual resignation from the House in 1989 and over time to the Republican tidal wave that saw the party gain 52 seats.

But there are clear differences this time that may make Democrats’ efforts significantly less effective.

Gingrich and his allies used the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct as a cudgel against Democrats, repeatedly filing complaints against the leaders of the majority party.

Democrats have so far refused to break the so-called ethics truce put into place following a reform of the process in 1997 that banned outside groups from filing complaints and placed the responsibility with Members alone.

“There is no silver bullet” to the majority said a senior Democratic aide. “It is not a matter of coming up with a new catchphrase.”

Even as House Democrats grapple to frame the 2004 elections in their favor, most observers believe two factors they cannot control — the strength of Bush’s re-election effort and the state of the economy — will ultimately determine their fate.

Recent polling suggests that although Bush’s approval ratings are down from the start of the war in Iraq, they have leveled off in the mid- to high 50s, a solid number with more than a year before voters head to the ballot box. And he still carries hefty double-digits leads over all nine Democrats currently seeking their party’s nomination.

Democrats point to polling numbers of their own showing that voters repeatedly cite the economy as the most important issue and that they do not believe Bush is handling it properly.

Strategists argue that because their presidential candidates are working increasingly hard to differentiate themselves, the Democrats’ economic message has not yet broken through.

But one senior Democratic House aide insists that once the nominee becomes apparent next spring, the party will rally behind an economic message.

“All of [the candidates] have the economic message first and foremost,” the aide said.

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