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Democrats Show No Interest in Outlining an Agenda

House and Senate Democrats ripped into the House GOP’s new “Pledge to America” on Thursday, but they have no plans to lay out a detailed agenda of their own.

President Bill Clinton urged Democrats on Thursday to present an agenda. “I think that the Democrats ought to put on one card no more than five and no fewer than three things that will be their priorities,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “We’ve still got a chance here. We’ve got 30 days to have an honest debate. We ought to do it.”

But Democrats instead are focusing on burnishing their record and bashing the GOP, rather than creating something akin to the “Six for ’06” platform they unveiled while in the minority or Barack Obama’s party platform in the 2008 presidential election.

“We have been executing an agenda from day one,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said at a news conference called to criticize the GOP’s pledge.

“When Republicans want to talk about their agenda, they go to a hardware store and sit around a table and have a photo op,” Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said. “Our agenda’s going to be voted on in about an hour,” he added, noting the small-business bill that the House cleared later that day for Obama’s signature.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) objected to a question about the lack of a new platform, pointing to House Democrats’ manufacturing-focused “Make It in America” jobs agenda. “I’ve been talking about ‘Make It in America’ for months,” he said.

Other Democrats said that there is no shortage of work to be done next year but that it isn’t clear whether there is a political advantage to listing the items in a glossy brochure.

The to-do list consists of unreached goals from the past two years, including completing work on a new energy policy, an immigration overhaul, a transportation bill, gay rights measures and education reform. Potential new initiatives include measures concerning ethics, earmarks and entitlements.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” a senior Democratic aide said.

But the party wants to sell its record first. “Our battle right now is to make the case that what we are doing right now is working and what the Republicans want to do is what got us into this mess,” the aide said.

A bullet-point agenda of priorities that haven’t been accomplished could detract from that, the aide added.

“We have to campaign on what we did, that’s kinda how it works,” another aide said. “George Bush took eight years to damage the economy; we’re still trying to dig out after 18 months. It only makes sense to remind people who broke it.”

Senate Democrats are also focused on running on their record.

“Do we need to be open about what we plan to do the next two years? Absolutely … [but] I think people know where we stand. We’ve had an agenda over the last two years,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin (Md.), pointing to the health care and financial regulatory overhauls, as well as a series of jobs bills and small-business tax credits, as Democratic accomplishments.
“We’ve been fighting for these middle-class values,” he added.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is facing at worst a nominal re-election challenge from Republican Len Britton, said he believes a forward-looking agenda does little for either party this year.

Leahy said Republicans’ 1994 “Contract With America” was a necessity for the GOP because it was a new commodity. This year’s election has little to do with agenda and more with the mood of the country and whom the public wants in charge, not necessarily what they say they will do, Leahy said.

“I don’t think it’s ’94. Then, it made sense,” Leahy said, adding that Democrats “could talk about it, but I don’t think anybody is listening on either side.”

A third Democratic Senator agreed, arguing that this year’s election “is about who do you want in charge, them or us.” The best thing the Democratic leadership can do is stay out of the way of incumbents who need to tailor their campaign message for their states, the Senator said.

“It’s about what individual candidates need,” the Senator added, arguing that while some will highlight economic accomplishments, others may use the health care bill as a campaign cornerstone. Given the diversity of the Senate Democratic Conference, pulling together a universally helpful agenda would be difficult and would ultimately muddy the waters, the Senator said. “How do you even do that?”

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