Democrats Crank Up Message Machine for Recess

Posted December 14, 2007 at 6:34pm

Looking to pivot away from futile yearlong attempts to end the war in Iraq and increase domestic spending in the first half of the 110th Congress, Democratic leaders will dispatch Members home this week armed with a message focused on domestic accomplishments, as well as a bevy of potentially potent campaign issues heading into a crucial election year.

Countering the stinging disappointment for the party’s grass-roots faithful over the war in particular, Democrats are pointing to historic victories this year on three kitchen-table issues that are easily understood by voters, starting with an energy bill that contains the first increase in vehicle mileage standards since the 1970s — at a time when families are struggling with $3-a-gallon gas. The list of domestic achievements also includes an increase in the minimum wage for the first time in a decade and deep reductions in interest rates for college loans.

Congressional Democrats also are trying to make the best out of the likelihood that they will have to pass an alternative minimum tax patch without offsetting tax hikes and a budget near President Bush’s prescribed spending level.

“Democrats in Congress have made progress this year despite reckless opposition from the President and Republicans in Congress,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Friday. “This month, we will send the president historic energy independence legislation that increases fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks for the first time in a generation, a middle-class tax cut for 23 million Americans, and a final budget bill that addresses the priorities of the American people with new investments in education, cancer research, and law enforcement.”

Democrats also are warning Republicans that their obstructionism will cost them at the polls next year. Pelosi on Thursday described the Democrats having to give in on spending levels and other issues as “the political reality of not having a President of the United States. And nothing speaks more clearly to Democratic victories in the next election than when you see this is what is possible. This isn’t about caving. This is again about setting a high-water mark of values that is fiscally sound and gives priority to those issues that are relevant to the lives of the American people.”

Democrats point to the defeat of plans to expand children’s health insurance in particular as a huge political liability for the GOP.

“When Republicans have to define a victory as beating kids’ health, they’re in trouble,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s only a victory in sort of a perverse, inside-the-Beltway framework. People outside the Beltway want 10 million children to have access to health care, and it is going to come back to bite them in the coming year.”

Other Republican victories, such as preventing oil companies from losing their tax breaks, protecting electric utilities from having to produce renewable electricity, and saving hedge fund managers from paying taxes on their offshore retirement assets, only reinforce Democrats’ arguments that the Republicans are the party of the status quo, Van Hollen said.

“On issue after issue, when it comes to being on the right side of an issue from the public’s perspective, they’ve forfeited any claim to being a forward-looking party. They are firmly embracing the Bush administration’s policies and the status quo, and that will come back to haunt them,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers plan to spotlight the energy package expected to reach completion this week, highlighting the issue not only in terms of environmental concerns, but also as a pocketbook and national security winner as well.

“In less than one year, the Democratic Congress did what some thought was impossible. It’s a tremendous victory that we plan to highlight across the country,” said one Democratic aide familiar with the platform.

“Given lemons, aren’t they making lemonade?” suggested an aide to one liberal Democratic lawmaker. Referring to the energy package’s central role in the newest message strategy, the aide added: “It’s an issue that polls very well with the American public, and frankly, the fact that energy got gutted doesn’t really matter.”

Although Democrats also hope voters will blame Republicans for keeping the war going, some Democrats acknowledged the issue could take a back seat in the next session of the 110th Congress as economic issues are given a more central role.

“Every time you bring up Iraq, you enforce our inability to create and deliver change,” the aide said.

But one leadership aide said that whether the Iraq War or more domestic issues take center stage next year remains to be seen: “Certainly, we are ready to walk and chew gum at the same time, so whichever way it goes, we’ll end up talking about both issues and it might be a matter of outside side events, and which one is more prominent.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have been watching the smoldering ruin of much of the Democratic agenda and say Democratic leaders have repeatedly overreached and under-delivered.

“How you could be responsible for a Congress that voted more times, I believe, than any Congress in history and produce less legislation than any Congress in history, that’s a pretty big non sequitur, and they are going to wrestle with that and deal with it,” said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “But their real opportunity to define who they were was this year, and I don’t think they’ve been very successful in defining who they are, in terms of governing.”

The GOP argues that the Democrats’ spin machine can’t overcome the stench of defeat.

“No amount of talking points or spin can substitute for the lack of accomplishments of this Democratic Congress,” said Antonia Ferrier, Blunt’s spokeswoman. “I don’t blame them for trying, but it ultimately gets down to what you’ve accomplished. In the final days of this session, it’s still unclear how the Democrats plan on funding the government or stopping a massive middle class tax hike. What is clear is that they had no plan to close the year.”