Still attempting to rebound from setbacks in the November elections, House Democrats will spend their annual retreat this weekend trying to develop a coherent strategy on the issues of security and values that will allow them to go toe-to-toe with the GOP heading into 2006.
This year’s agenda is somewhat of a departure from recent Democratic issues conferences, at which the party has spent much of its time reassessing its core policies and larger party message. Democratic leaders say they recognize they must look at how to effectively convince Americans they are the party that can best keep them secure both at home and abroad.
“I believe that in the last election Americans voted out of fear — on security and whether individual candidates shared their values,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who put the conference together. “It’s critical we realize why the electorate voted the way it did.”
Menendez said it’s time for Democrats to look “introspectively” at themselves and the way they address issues. He said the party would be well served to look at areas of Republican success, as well as ways to “reframe the issues in a way that meets [America’s] values, and strikes a responsive chord with the electorate. If you do that, you can succeed.”
“House Democrats are unified, organized and energized. This is an opportunity to build on our Democratic unity and to work together on the toughest challenges our nation faces,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Congressman Menendez has put together an outstanding issues conference focusing on national security, Social Security, faith and values, and better communicating our message.”
Democrats leave this morning for the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., for their three-day party evaluation and strategy session. A record 135 of the 201 minority Members plan to attend the conference, titled “Protecting American Values, Securing America’s Future.”
The conference highlights include panel discussions on national security, values and faith, winning in conservative “red” states and combating GOP plans to reform Social Security. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Democratic strategist Mark Gersh and PBS journalist Bill Moyers are among the featured guests.
Democrats have a series of goals for the conference: outline the party’s vision on security and values; find ways to express that vision; and figure out how the party can translate its plans into Democratic victories.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), who will chair the panel on “red districts,” said: “Democrats must put forth a strong vision on national security and reassure Americans that we share their values of faith, family and responsibility.
“We need to use this retreat to focus on these issues and come away with practical approaches that will make a difference in 2006.”
Menendez said Democrats know their strengths, but they must figure out a better way to “communicate those strengths to the public.”
He said Democrats must make clear that their values revolve around the issues of security, whether it is jobs, retirement, Social Security or personal safety.
As part of that, he said Democrats must be proactive rather than simply reacting to majority proposals and ideas.
“We must be out there with what we are for, first,” Menendez explained. “And have the criticism of Republicans and the White House later.”
Menendez said Democrats are flocking to the conference in such high numbers this year because they recognize both the political and issues stakes are high, and they know history is on their side. The opposing party to the White House typically makes gains in the second midterm election, and Democrats are banking that 2006 will hold to that trend.
“This retreat will be a foundation for a blueprint, and success, in addition to attendance, will be what flows from that,” Menendez said.