Senate Democrats are shifting full-throttle into campaign mode and are midway through a major redesign of Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) strategic policy and public relations operations.
“We sat down and said what can we do to make this more effective, serving the members in an election year,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) explained.
Over the past four months, Senate Democrats — from Reid to the rank and file to leadership staff — have been furiously trying to craft a better offensive strategy for their floor operations as well as over the airwaves and in print. They’ve begun coordinating the leadership policy and communications teams, as well as working to ensure Senators are coordinating among themselves. The move comes after 17 months of largely playing defense against an aggressive GOP minority that has been intent on denying Democrats legislative and messaging victories.
And with just six months to go until the midterm elections — which could prove injurious for the majority — Democratic leaders realized time was of the essence.
“I think that there was a very strong sense from a lot of us that unless we institutionalized a capacity to respond effectively, just relying on spontaneous events or one-off pieces of good fortune wasn’t going to do the trick, and it wasn’t Harry’s failing,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said last week. “It was the Senate caucus’ institutional failing, and when we brought it to [Reid’s] attention, he and [Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles] Schumer [N.Y.] and Sen. Durbin were very quick to say, You know, you’re right. Let’s try to work our way through this, and do it in a sensible way.'”
It all began late in December. The Senate debate on health care reform was in full swing, and while Democrats were poised to win the final vote, they were getting a serious beating from Republicans on the public relations front.
So one evening around Christmas, freshman Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he “wandered” into Reid’s office to hand-deliver a Christmas gift and a letter laying out his concerns and ideas for how to turn Democrats’ fortunes around.
Begich said he and Reid talked for nearly 45 minutes about the need to “focus on messaging” and adopt a more campaign-style approach to the daily operations of the Senate.
Begich said Reid was “receptive and interested” in the ideas he brought to the table, and Reid gave him the go-ahead to start fomenting some change.
The first concrete result of that conversation came on Feb. 3, when Democrats met at the Newseum for their annual retreat. Part of Begich’s pitch that December night had been to give Members a private forum for expressing themselves, and Reid tapped the Alaskan along with Whitehouse, Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.), and Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), as moderators of the conversation.
After President Barack Obama took televised questions from Senators, Members began to vent their frustrations behind closed doors about the loss of their filibuster-proof majority — which resulted after the January special election win of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — and why the health care debate leading up to that electoral loss had been such a political disaster.
The criticism from junior Members of the Democratic Conference, particularly of the leaders’ messaging strategies and the absence of the White House’s public relations’ muscle, was blistering, several sources said.
“There was a lesson learned from health care: Define or be defined, and don’t expect your opponents to play fair,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
The aide added that the Democrats’ focus has shifted to “coordination of politics, policy, procedure and message.”
Another senior aide said last week’s push to get a financial regulatory reform bill to the floor, in which Democrats held three successive votes to break a united GOP filibuster, showcased the success of the operation so far.
“We made unique procedural choices, which helped us from a communications standpoint and that brought us to the policy position we wanted,” the aide said.
Fresh off the financial reform victory, Democrats say they plan to follow a similar road map for future battles.
Since December, Begich, Whitehouse, Murray, Pryor and Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) have been meeting sporadically and informally to make sure the changes leaders and the caucus have asked for are actually being realized.
Their goal is to “monitor the process and ensure it’s results-oriented and that it doesn’t fade into the night like so many other good ideas around here,” one Democratic aide said.
Stabenow noted that more “joint planning” has been occurring as a result of the group’s work.
Some of the changes appear rather banal. For example, the regular Thursday Democratic Policy Committee luncheon has been shaken up — regular message and floor strategy sessions have been added to the traditional mix of invited guests who often have little to do with the current Senate business.
But Begich said that minor change has been crucial to getting Senators on the same page policy- and message-wise, because they serve as brainstorming sessions and give Members a chance to hear what others are thinking about and doing.
“We’ve always got to constantly communicate, and sometimes around this place you don’t have that,” Begich said. “What you have is the assumed communication, which is, Oh I think they’re doing that.’ … I don’t want to assume anything in this world, because the minute you assume things something goes wrong.”
From a staff perspective, Democratic “war room” director Rodell Mollineau hired former Center for American Progress Communications and Outreach Director Adam Jentleson to be his new “rapid offense director.”
While Mollineau oversees the Democrats’ communications operations and long-term strategic messaging, Jentleson will try to “drive” the caucus’ daily message and war room’s operations. His job is to “ensure we’re using every tactic in our arsenal not only to define our position but to define Republicans,” Mollineau said.
Meanwhile, Policy Committee staffers who typically produce wonky policy documents used by Senators’ legislative directors have been expanding their scope and using their expertise to produce documents that can be easily used by the media, Senators and the public. They have also been tasked with reaching out more to editorial boards around the country to push the Democratic message.
Durbin said tighter coordination among staff and enhanced communication among Members has helped the entire party.
“I think members are finally starting to catch on. The way they describe things is more effective, and it helps us,” he said. He noted that his floor fight with Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) — who waged a one-man filibuster of an unemployment benefits package earlier this year — also acted as a catalyst for the Democrats’ shift to more hardball floor tactics against what they see as GOP obstructionism.
“It’s led people in our caucus to say we have to start describing to the American people what’s happening,” Durbin said. “Looking at an empty Senate floor doesn’t tell the story, but if we are in, engaging Republicans and describing what’s happening, people get a better impression of what the strategy on the other side is. And I think that’s happening more.”