Democrats ‘Retreat’ To Plan Campaign

Posted February 4, 2004 at 7:02pm

House Democrats will head to Virginia today for a critical three-day retreat, where they will set a political course for selling themselves to voters as a better alternative to majority Republicans heading into the 2004 elections.

Democratic Members and aides said that unlike past retreats, they will not use the getaway at the Homestead Resort to focus on drafting a policy agenda or laying out specific initiatives for the Congressional session. Rather, the minority party — sitting at a 13-seat deficit — will design an election-year message wide-reaching enough that both conservative and liberal Democrats can market it to the electorate.

“In the Republican context, they run the operation here, they have the necessity of going ahead and setting the legislative agenda,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.). “We’ll have legislative proposals, but in reality our focus is how to communicate with the country why we need to change from a Republican to a Democratic majority.”

A little more than half of the 205-member Caucus is set to attend the event, a drop from last year’s record 140-member turnout. Several senior aides privately acknowledged some Members were turned off by the four-hour-plus drive to the resort, but Caucus aides insist the turnout is on par with previous election years.

Menendez, the No. 3 House Democrat, will lead off the conference by presenting Members with a poll he commissioned to survey voters in the 60 battleground districts that party leaders believe they can carry. The survey, he said, will show the Caucus what matters to the electorate in marginal districts — and help highlight to lawmakers sitting in safe seats what it takes to win in the most competitive districts across the country.

“The stakes are high,” Menendez acknowledged of the retreat. “What we hope to accomplish is to ensure that we are heading in the right direction.”

While the agenda has a broad goal of setting a political road map for 2004, it will include several sessions on the issues Democrats see as the most important, including the economy and jobs, the budget deficit, national security and health care. The state of the economy has been the main focus of the Democratic message for the past year.

The Democrats will also brainstorm on ways to push their message beyond the national media through specialty and local press and the Internet. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will ask Members to be more active in their districts, raise more money for the party and work on behalf of Democratic candidates.

The three-day event will include a keynote address from former President Bill Clinton, who is expected for the second year in a row to give House Democrats direction as to how to overcome their minority status.

The Caucus will also hear from several panelists — Members, consultants and pollsters — who will lay out options for presenting the message on Democratic positions. Menendez said Members will spend a large part of the retreat brainstorming on the panelists’ suggestions.

Pelosi, who will help guide the event and address the Caucus, is expected to encourage Members to go on the offensive against the GOP but also will lay out the Democratic alternative as a positive one. And she will tell her Caucus members that they must get involved beyond their own re-election campaigns, aides said.

“No one can sit this election out,” Pelosi will say in her speech. “We need your time, your money, your voices. We have laid the groundwork but we can only win as a team.”

Democratic Members and aides acknowledge they face an uphill battle heading into November, but are banking on party wins in the upcoming Kentucky and South Dakota special elections to build much-needed momentum.

Menendez said while the goal is coming up with a message all Democrats can rally around, it’s not about putting together a centrist plan for the House Caucus. He described it as a retreat to plot a strategy of “defining issues in a way that is all-encompassing” and is broad enough to be embraced by conservative Blue Dogs, progressives and moderate New Democrats.

“We have to focus on creating an opportunity to be in the majority,” Menendez said. “We have to have a new American agenda, so we can win for America.”