Young Democrats Sharpen Tactics Against Old Rivals

Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) took the floor with a list of Republican missteps.
Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) took the floor with a list of Republican missteps. (By Gary I. Rothstein -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005

With the Capitol all but deserted last Monday night, the Democratic "30-Something Working Group" seized the House floor and took aim at their Republican adversaries.

As C-SPAN cameras beamed their performance around the country, Rep. Timothy J. Ryan, 32, of Ohio and Rep. Kendrick Meek, 39, of Florida recited a litany of GOP misdeeds -- mismanaging Hurricane Katrina and neglecting education and health care, for example -- and offered the Democrats' alternatives.

Their conversation even veered to religion, a subject many Democrats are afraid to touch. Ryan described the problems of the poor as a moral obligation and asked of Meek: "Where is the Christian Coalition when you are cutting poverty programs? They are fighting over Supreme Court justices."

The two newcomers -- who have served a combined six years in the House -- are part of a new generation of Democrats who are working to try to topple the GOP. Their fresh ideas, modern media skills and aggressive political tactics have inspired a party that has drifted for much of the past decade -- wedded to old notions and seemingly incapable of capitalizing on White House and congressional Republican miscues.

As part of the new approach, House and Senate Democrats are devising an alternative agenda of key policies. Ryan is pushing proposals aimed at drastically reducing the number of abortions over the coming decade by offering support and services to pregnant women. Others are crafting a plan for reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil by using more domestic agricultural products, an approach that would have significant appeal to Midwestern voters.

"We can't be Dr. No to everything Republicans do," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "We have to provide our own positive ideas."

The rise of the new breed, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Barack Obama (Ill.), the Senate's only African American and the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, marks a generational divide in a party long dominated by Northeastern liberals and Southern conservatives.

Unlike some of their forbears, the newcomers are pragmatists who view the past decade of GOP rule not as an aberration but as a sea change in political campaigning, fundraising and lobbying to which Democrats must adjust. They arrived in Washington as challengers and are comfortable questioning the establishment -- because they have not been part of it.

"Everyone recognizes the bottom line: We've got to win the House," said Van Hollen, who is in his second term. "So people are looking for creative alternatives, and they're much more willing to experiment now."

Many Democrats concede that, as a group, they were bullied into submission by President Bush during his first four years, when his popularity was high. They went along with his tax cuts, backed the war in Iraq and helped adopt a controversial Medicare prescription drug program. This year, however, the Democrats began pushing back more, even before the uproar over the administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina. By standing united, they helped to block Bush's plan to create private accounts in the Social Security system.

But in light of the Democrats' meager political successes in recent years, it is far from certain they can score major gains in next year's elections, even with Bush's popularity falling and widespread displeasure over the war and gasoline prices, according to lawmakers and political experts.

"It's not as easy as it looks," said former representative Robert S. Walker (Pa.). Walker sees plenty of parallels between his crowd of 1994 GOP House revolutionaries and the young Democrats, but he notes that the Republicans started laying the groundwork for their takeover in the early 1980s, at least a decade before their electoral coup. "I can understand why people say an opportunity is presenting itself," Walker said. "But it does take more than a couple of election cycles to change things."

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