House Democrats have a goal for 2012 elections, but do they need an agenda?

Reporter May 14, 2012

In 1994, Republicans had the “Contract With America.” In 2006, Democrats touted their “Six for ’06” plan. And in 2010, the GOP unveiled a “Pledge to America.”

The last three times control of the House has changed hands, the winning party has run on some form of public, cohesive agenda that could be embraced by incumbents and challengers alike. But as House Democrats mount an uphill climb to recapture the chamber this November, it’s not clear whether they plan to follow that model.

House Democratic leaders have yet to say whether they’re planning such a message. In the past, minority parties have often unveiled those plans in September or October.

“Democrats will present a clear vision to reignite the American Dream and a thriving middle class,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

Among Democratic lawmakers, opinion is split on whether such a plan is necessary for 2012.

“I do think we need to put forth an agenda, one that says we are going to be careful with spending, but we’re going to make sure we prepare for the future,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). “No matter what happens, we’re going to have to be talking about jobs.”

But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is retiring, said the minority had little need for a proactive agenda because the election is more likely to be a referendum on Republicans.

“I don’t think in 2010 that pledge or whatever had anything to do with the election,” Frank said. “People were mad at us, and I think the main thing we’ve got [now] is their irresponsibility.”

In addition to rallying around a platform, the 1994 Republicans, 2006 Democrats and 2010 Republicans all shared something else in common: They were running in midterm elections, with the other side in control of the White House. Now, House Democrats have a higher authority to guide their agenda plans — President Obama.

“The main ingredient in the Contract With America and the Pledge to America was that Republicans were arguing for change of the status quo,” said Terry Holt, a former House GOP leadership aide. “It’s more complicated for Democrats. Barack Obama is the status quo.”

With or without a rallying cry, taking back the House will be a tall order for Democrats.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made news last month when he said there was a “one-in-three chance” Republicans would lose the chamber in November. Expert opinion on the topic differs, but both parties have at least a few reasons for optimism.

Because they won so many seats in 2010, Republicans have far more turf to defend this cycle. In its latest race ratings, the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report said it considered 45 Republican-held seats to be “in play,” compared with 24 seats currently held by Democrats. Congressional job approval is also at or near historic lows in several polls, suggesting that the incumbent party could suffer come November.

Yet Democrats have obstacles to overcome, including other retirements in their ranks and a redistricting round that has helped fortify many Republicans elected two years ago. And history suggests it is difficult for a party to pick up 25 seats the same year its president is running for reelection.

The last time the House changed hands in a presidential election year was 1952, when Republicans captured control of the chamber on the coattails of Dwight D. Eisenhower. (The House flipped again in 1954, and stayed Democratic for the next 40 years.)

High-profile mission statements have so far worked better on the campaign trail than in legislative practice. House Republicans have had trouble getting many bills through the Democratic Senate and past the usual opposition of Obama, just as Democrats had much of their agenda opposed by Bush in 2007 and Republicans by Clinton in 1995.

It’s also debatable whether past examples of such platforms actually played much of a role in propelling their authors to victory. Republicans in 1994 already appeared on their way to victory when the Contract With America was unveiled, and in 2010 relatively few GOP candidates made mention of the Pledge to America on the campaign trail.

“I think people vote about what the majority did,” Frank said, “not what the minority’s going to do.”

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