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Democrats Look to Past to Chart Future

CAMBRIDGE, Md. ­­— House Democratic leaders are returning to the strategy that helped them win the majority in 2006, hoping that a strong message and a catchy slogan will allow them to reconnect with the voters who abandoned them on Nov. 2.

Democratic leaders spent much of their three-day retreat here talking with Members about rebranding and refocusing on jobs and the economy. Democrats say they are determined to make their time in the minority short-lived: Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) on Friday unveiled a majority-making campaign slogan for 2012: “Drive for 25,” a reference to the number of seats the party needs to win back control of the House.

DCCC Deputy Executive Director Jennifer Crider described “Drive for 25” as an “integrated grass-roots, communication, research, new media, voter contact strategy to hold Republicans accountable in their districts and persuade independent voters and the Democratic base,” saying the party would roll out more details in the coming weeks and months.

House Democratic leaders largely blame their messaging strategy, particularly on the economy and health care reform, for their 63-seat loss on Nov. 2. But they believe that it will be easier to come up with a communications plan that works this cycle because they aren’t in charge; they say playing offense is easier than playing defense.

“Now that we get to compare and contrast with what Republicans do — not what they say they want to do, not what they say they would have done, but what they do … I think our story stands up very well for 2012,” Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said.

“I think the Republicans, at the same time, are finding now that they have to be responsible, it’s a little more difficult than they thought.”

The leadership of the Caucus is similar to that of House Democrats the last time they were in the minority. In the 109th Congress, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) served as Minority Leader and Steny Hoyer (Md.) was the Whip. Current Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) and Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) were also in the mix.

Pelosi has long believed that a party’s message is central to its success at the ballot box. In the summer of 2006, before Democrats won back control of the House, Pelosi led a campaign effort called “Six for ’06,” which was an outline of six broad legislative goals Democrats vowed to strive for if put in charge.

Now, just a few weeks back in the minority, House Democrats have already introduced their “Drive for 25” initiative and begun a broad assault on Republicans. Among Democrats’ charges: The GOP lacks an agenda to promote jobs and is trying to revert to George W. Bush-era economic policies, which they say caused the economic downturn in the first place.

Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) over the weekend described the Republicans’ proposals to cut spending as a “recipe for budget anarchy and fiscal chaos.”

Democrats have also outlined the three pillars of their economic message: creating jobs, reducing the deficit and strengthening the middle class. They plan to focus heavily in the short term on their “Make It in America” manufacturing jobs initiative, aides said.

Roy Spence, a marketing guru whom Pelosi has relied on in the past, spoke to Democrats at this weekend’s retreat about effective communications tactics.

Larson said Democrats are trying to find ways to untangle complex policy jargon so that the public understands their ideas.

“It’s clarity, bringing clarity, and oftentimes, simple, affirmative statements are better,” the Caucus chairman said. “We know how much we were able to accomplish in the 111th Congress, but if you don’t convey a message, then nobody knows about it. Needless to say, we’ve been stung by the other side boiling things down and saying things like ‘Death Tax,’ ‘Kill the Bill.’”

“We’re talking all the time about what we need to do,” Clyburn said.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver predicted that Republicans would help Democrats make their case, particularly if they go too far, too fast.

“We can get there with considerable help from Republicans, and we welcome all help from Republicans,” the Missouri Democrat said. “They can help us by overreaching.”

The challenges for House Democrats this cycle are high. Two years isn’t a long time, and the political map is difficult: Many of the districts where they lost seats lean Republican, and reclaiming them will be tough.

Still, Democrats this weekend weren’t discouraged.

“We think we have an excellent opportunity in terms of recruitment,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), adding that there are now 61 Republican-held seats in districts that Obama won in 2008. “Those seats give us a good base to start with. You can absolutely count to 25 and beyond.”

Pelosi said Democrats have “great prospects” to retake control, adding that “a great deal” of the party’s efforts to win back the chamber would hinge on its messaging strategy.

“You can’t recruit volunteers and you can’t raise the resources without a message and inspiration,” she said. “So it will all be about that. … It’s going to be message. It’s going to be mobilization at the grass-roots level.”

Putting that strategy in place could be problematic for Pelosi, however.

Her hold on her Caucus remains shaky: Nearly two-dozen Members publicly called for her to surrender her leadership post after the Nov. 2 elections, and 19 voted for another Democrat during the floor vote for Speaker earlier this month.

A senior aide to one of the Democrats who opposed Pelosi for Speaker said Caucus moderates would feel much better about the future if Pelosi publicly said that she would not seek the Speaker’s gavel again. She hasn’t signaled any intention to walk away.

“Achieving that goal might require a signal, early on, from the current leadership that our next Speaker would be someone other than Nancy Pelosi,” the aide said. “Based on the recent vote for Speaker, she is 45 votes shy of the Speakership.”

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