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Democrats Adjust Strategy

Party Tempers Expectations for Legislative Victories in 2008

Bruised by widespread criticism for failing to deliver on their promises in 2007, Congressional Democrats are eyeing a tactical shift in strategy in their second year of control that involves setting more realistic legislative expectations for what they actually can achieve in 2008.

Sources in both the House and Senate said Democratic leaders now recognize that they have to revise how they communicate with the electorate given the difficulties they faced racking up accomplishments in the first year of the 110th Congress. Part of the plan involves making the case that the Congressional majority needs to grow the number of Democratic seats in Congress and elect a Democratic president in order to bring about change in Washington.

“We need to lower expectations,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “We learned that lesson.”

“Overall, the tone is going to be, ‘we’re going to fight for change and do what we can but don’t expect a lot because Bush and the Republicans are putting up roadblocks. We need more Democrats in Congress and a Democrat in the White House,’” this source added.

Several knowledgeable Democrats suggested that the strategy isn’t likely to be outlined explicitly in message documents or Member talking points. Rather, it will be a subtle transition by Democratic leaders to be more pragmatic when setting legislative goals, while regularly underscoring that their priorities are directly tied to growing their power in the House, Senate and at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

“If last year proved anything, it’s that with the narrow majority in the Senate, the only way to really effectively get things done is if we pick up additional seats,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

The Democrats’ approach to 2008 isn’t necessarily a surprise given the difficulty the party faced last year delivering on some key aspects of its agenda, and most particularly on forcing President Bush to change course in Iraq. Congressional Democrats made innumerable attempts to force Bush’s hand to end the U.S. involvement in the conflict, but regularly failed in the Senate, where the party holds a razor-thin 51-49 majority and faces the hurdle of avoiding a near-certain GOP filibuster.

Democratic House and Senate sources say they know they have to try to avoid closing out 2008 as they did 2007 — facing record-low approval ratings and a barrage of negative headlines criticizing their inability to make good on all of their promises. Democrats will still look to make progress and push their initiatives, they said, but the bar won’t be as high as when they initially assumed power.

A senior Senate Democratic aide said Democrats “set some pretty specific expectations coming into last year” that in many cases weren’t realized in the face of strong — and powerful — Republican objections. And Democrats know that 2008 is likely to be even more challenging given that presidential politics is set to take center stage and further polarize the two parties, the staffer said.

“We had a tough time overcoming Republican obstruction last year,” the aide said. “So coming into this year, it would be stupid not to evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and the dynamics of a presidential election while we put together a course and strategy for next year.”

Late last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged that Democrats were failing to make a strong enough case to the public that they had delivered on what they had hoped to accomplish when they won back control of Congress. Reid suggested at the time that Democrats would need to increase their margins in the Senate to effectively demonstrate that they are indeed “agents of change.”

“We need to start moving the target from our accomplishments, which we’re proud of, to that we are agents of change,” Reid said in the December interview with Roll Call. “We are doing that. … We tried to do all these good things and the American people said ‘OK, we’re glad you did these but we want more done.’ So our goal has to [be to] let the American people know we need change in the Senate. We need more Senate seats. I can’t complete massive change with having a majority of one.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears to hold a similar view, having ended the first half of the 110th Congress by touting her party’s successes but also by laying out just a few general goals for the next year, such as bolstering economic, national and energy security. Pelosi said in a press release last month that Democrats would be “working to improve” in those areas, and made just one specific vow: that the party “will build on” energy security legislation passed in 2007 to reduce global warming, lower energy costs and create American jobs.

Pelosi’s outline for the coming year was markedly different from the beginning of 2007, when House and Senate Democratic leaders pledged to bring about “A New Direction” for the country beginning with passage of the so-called “Six for ‘06” or the top six legislative initiatives they looked to pass upon winning control of chamber.

The House did have success ushering through their first set of priorities — including a minimum-wage increase — but fell short on some other goals because the Democratic Senate couldn’t overcome the hurdles of a chamber that almost always requires 60 votes to pass legislation.

Indeed, Democrats ended 2007 on a lower note than they had hoped after being forced to give in to Republican demands on issues such as taxes and domestic spending. The majority tried, but in many cases failed, to hold its own against threats of presidential vetoes and Senate GOP filibusters that put many of their legislative accomplishments at risk.

“A lot of people felt Congress wasn’t always relevant last year,” acknowledged Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). “It is imperative the majority demonstrate relevance” this year by focusing on issues such as job loss and unemployment or the struggling housing market.

With that in mind, Democrats have kicked off the early days of 2008 urging diplomacy with Republicans in crafting a bipartisan economic stimulus package that has the potential to win both parties some political points. If successful, such a compromise could win favor with the disaffected and the wallet- conscious voter.

The Senate Democratic leadership aide said that in part, the Democrats’ 2008 strategy will look to tap into “the anxiety and concern people have about the bickering in Washington” and the “comments on the campaign trail, and pledge to work together to try to change Washington.”

At the same time, the leadership aide acknowledged that expectations for legislative accomplishments must remain in check. In the second year of a session that coincides with a presidential election, it’s “admittedly more difficult to legislate. Only a handful of items can dominate the debate,” the staffer said.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said that while Congressional Democrats will certainly use the coming months to “get as much of our agenda done as possible,” they also must manage people’s expectations for major changes in 2008.

“As we go forward, we need to be realistic about the fact that the Bush administration has resisted change at every junction. … People need to factor that in,” Van Hollen said.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.

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