Senate Democrats are continuing to battle GOP attempts to define the image of Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), concluding that a forceful response could unify the Caucus and build a stronger defense around Reid than around his predecessor, Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
Democrats, responding to mailings critical of Reid sent earlier this week by the Republican National Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee, launched a new round of counterattacks Wednesday, sending out a fundraising e-mail from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a letter to President Bush from the entire Caucus, both defending Reid.
“He won’t agree with the administration on every issue, but calling him names is pointless and silly,” the Caucus wrote in a letter circulated by Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the DSCC chairman.
The letter and fundraising e-mail were part of a conscious decision by Democrats to mount a strong defense of Reid.
“This sends a signal to Democrats that we are not going to take any kind of Republican attack lightly and that we are going to respond in kind when the GOP attack machine goes into high gear,” said Phil Singer, DSCC spokesman. “Any kind of false claim that Republicans try to put out there will get knocked down as soon as it’s made.”
The RNC and NRSC attacked Reid this week in a lengthy e-mail labeling the Minority Leader as an obstructionist to President Bush’s agenda, questioning the propriety of his family’s previous work as lobbyists and accusing him of overt partisanship for establishing a communications “war room.”
The mailings were part of an effort to turn Reid into a political lightning rod, much as conservative groups seriously damaged Daschle’s image in the 18 months he served as Majority Leader in 2001 and 2002.
Democrats occasionally mounted a defense of Daschle but rarely did so in an organized manner. When Daschle was defeated for re-election in 2004 by former GOP Rep. John Thune — partly on the basis of the obstructionist charges — Democrats decided that they couldn’t afford to watch their new leader be attacked in the same manner without putting up a fight.
“We’re not going to let them play hardball and us play softball,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).
“You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth,” Schumer said in a brief interview. He suggested that he solicited signatures for the letter out of “basic fairness, decency and honor,” saying Bush brought this on with his talk of bipartisanship at a time when the RNC was readying its attack on Reid.
“We’re only a month into the session, not two weeks before Election Day,” Schumer said.
Republicans have countered that Reid, who took to the Senate floor to blast the RNC effort Monday and lashed out again at the White House on Tuesday, was overreacting to the work of a political group. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) noted Tuesday that outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has attempted to excoriate Bush at every turn, calling him a liar on a number of issues.
In addition, some Congressional Democratic communications strategists wonder privately whether the new counterattacks come across as weak, with too much of a complaining tone, and whether they may draw too much attention to the original GOP charges.
Still, the decision, for now, has been that the lesson of the 2004 campaign — particularly the several weeks in August when the Kerry campaign didn’t fight back against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads — was that no attack should go unanswered.
“By ignoring the problem you don’t necessarily make it go away,” said one senior strategist.
Reid, who just won an easy re-election in a swing state, is in a much different political situation than Daschle, since the South Dakota Democrat was a little more than three years away from an election in a solidly conservative state.
But the GOP attacks on Daschle didn’t just hurt him politically at home. They also turned him into a political punch line on the GOP fund-raising circuit — a big asset for Thune as he raised more than $15 million in 10 months for a race in a state with fewer than 400,000 voters.
The lesson, Democrats say, is to work to keep their new leader’s image strong nationally. They also hope that another early byproduct of the defense of Reid could be a “unifying thing for the Caucus,” the strategist said.
What is clear is that the Democrats are trying to capitalize on the hubbub financially. An e-mail sent out to donors on Wednesday highlighted the “hypocrisy emanating from George Bush and his cronies at the RNC.”
The DSCC fundraising appeal was penned by Anne Lewis, a direct-mail consultant for the committee.
“Republicans are again playing their tired old game of trying to demonize — in their words ‘Daschle-ize’ — anyone who disagrees with them,” Lewis wrote.
Her letter added that Reid was “work[ing] his way through college as a police officer while George Bush was cheerleading at a preppy boarding school.”
Last month, the DSCC drew some criticism for its decision to send out an e-mail solicitation by California Sen. Barbara Boxer seeking to raise money off her opposition to the confirmation of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even as the issue was being debated on the Senate floor.
Singer rejected any suggestion that the latest e-mail was simply playing politics.
“Republicans began this brouhaha,” Singer said. “At some point their actions speak louder than their words do.”