Hoping to damage the presidential prospects of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Democrats are aggressively working to link him to embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on the eve of today’s expected fight over judicial nominations.
A set of Democratic talking points being distributed by the office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urges Members to link Frist to DeLay.
“Arrogant with power, rewriting the rules is what the Republican Party has done best in recent years,” the memo reads. “Tom DeLay has done it in the House, and now Republicans are trying to do it in the Senate.”
DeLay has been admonished by the House ethics committee three times in the past year and has rapidly become the Democratic poster child for alleged corruption in the GOP Congress as he battles questions surrounding his foreign travel.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is running an Internet ad featuring a variety of images of Frist and DeLay together while a narrator says, “Republican leaders in Washington are out of control.”
A recent fundraising pitch for the DSCC sounds the same theme, urging donors to fight the “quest for absolute power” by Frist and DeLay. One Senate Democratic leadership aide confirmed the strategy is a “concerted effort, in so far as DeLay is a better known entity than Frist and his notoriety opens up a door” to tie the Tennessee Senator to the Texan.
The tactics echo the 1996 strategy of then-President Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, which relentlessly sought to link Kansas Senator and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole to controversial Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Dole eventually resigned from the Senate in May 1996, but his attempt to distance himself from the Washington establishment and Gingrich’s agenda ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Democratic strategists see a number of lessons in that triumph — most importantly that they should try to introduce Frist to the American public before he is able to introduce himself. That way, Democratic strategists believe, the party might be able to permanently damage his chances of winning in 2008.
Frist has not publicly indicated whether he will run for president in three years, but he is widely expected to do so.
Bob Stevenson, Frist’s communications director, called the move a “desperate gambit” that is “destined to fail.”
Anita Dunn, a Democratic consultant and partner in the media firm Squier Knapp Dunn, said that Frist “isn’t defined” yet, but she added that he is “becoming defined as someone who is willing to do anything to advance his political purposes.”
“That is exactly the image of Tom DeLay,” she added.
But even as Democrats acknowledge that DeLay remains a largely unknown figure to voters nationwide, they believe that the image of an ethically challenged Republican Congress is gaining traction and want to make sure that Frist is paired with DeLay in the public consciousness.
Dunn said that Congressional intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, in March crystallized to voters that Republicans control all levers of power in the federal government.
“Linking [Frist] with the politics of the House is not only fair because they are running things, but [also] a way of shorthanding to people whether these are the people you want running the government,” Dunn said.
Republicans dismiss the Democratic efforts as just more overheated rhetoric directed toward the party in power.
“The Democrats have been targeting Tom DeLay for many, many years in hopes of making him the issue,” said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the House Majority Leader. “We are seeing people are more concerned about issues that affect their families most.”
Privately, some Republican strategists admit that the faceoff over filibusters poses potential obstacles for Frist’s political future. But they remain unconvinced that pushing for a Senate rule change can be equated in voters’ minds with alleged ethical wrongdoing.
Frist is clearly facing serious pressure from social conservatives — a key voting bloc in the GOP presidential primaries — to push through the rule change on judges. He is expected to bring it to the Senate floor today.
But if Frist continues to frame the debate as an issue of fairness, he will avoid the linkages to DeLay, said one high-level GOP strategist.
“As long as they maintain a consistent, steady message, which is that all of these nominees deserve a vote, they make it a debate over values, which is a net plus for him and a difficult thing to hang around his neck,” the source said.
The strategist added that “the issue of Tom DeLay is more complicated” because of the perception of ethical lapses that have come to surround the Texas Republican.
“Whether or not [DeLay’s problems] transcend to other Members depends on those Members’ situations on the same issues,” the strategist said.