By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, April 22 -- Democratic Party officials continue to assemble the pieces for their midterm election strategy, but questions about the party's overall message, differences on Iraq, reservations about their leaders, and debates about campaign tactics contribute to concerns that they may not be positioned to take advantage of the most favorable political climate since President Bush was elected.
The Democrats came to New Orleans this week to highlight what they want the midterm elections to be about: a referendum on Bush's leadership and competence. Just as Iraq symbolizes Americans' disenchantment with Bush's foreign policy, New Orleans stands as a poignant reminder of the breakdown of government after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Democrats intend to use that imagery as a partisan weapon between now and November to argue that Bush has failed the American people on multiple fronts.
"Our current Republican government will be judged by how they treated Americans of the Gulf Coast, and how it has treated, or mistreated, our American community," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in his speech to the committee on Saturday. "The Republicans have cut and run when it comes to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and we will not do that."
On that there is widespread agreement, but many Democrats fear it will not be enough to win back control of the House or Senate or both in November. "We have to do two things," said Bobby Kahn, the Georgia Democratic Party chairman. "One, disqualify the Republicans, and two, provide an alternative. The first part, they've done for us, and the second part, we need to do."
The New Orleans meeting was infused with optimism. Democrats believe the elements that were crucial to Republican successes in 2002 and 2004 -- public fears about terrorism and positive perceptions of Bush's leadership capacities -- no longer have the potency to turn close elections in the GOP's direction. Overpowering those traditional Republican assets, they believe, is growing sentiment for a change in direction after six years of Republican dominance.
"In 2006, the veil of competency that they pretended to have, the illusion of security they ran on, is no longer there," said Robert Zimmerman, Democratic national committeeman from New York. "This is an election where the message is 'stand and deliver,' and they've not been able to stand and deliver."
But as powerful as that sentiment for change may be across the country, many Democrats see it as only one component of a winning campaign strategy. In their estimation, the message "Had enough?" is not enough to guarantee the kind of success in November that they believe is possible.
"I don't think we can coast through this election year by pointing out the shortcomings, which are multiple and gargantuan, of the Bush administration," said former DNC chairman Donald L. Fowler. "I don't think we can do that."
Fowler said the party needs policies on health care, tax reform, ethics and especially Iraq. In his speech Saturday, Dean sought to outline the elements of a Democratic message, adapted from what congressional Democrats have been assembling in recent months.
The proposals include raising the minimum wage, ensuring tax fairness for the middle class, rewriting the Medicare prescription drug plan, enacting recommendations from the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, overhauling ethics and lobbying rules, and pushing the Iraqis to take greater responsibility for defeating the insurgency.
But Dean's litany falls short of what other Democrats see as a comprehensive alternative to Republican governance, and while many of them believe there is still time to produce something for public consumption before the November election, there is not overwhelming confidence that the party can do it. On Iraq, there is a sharp divide over whether to embrace or eschew timetables for withdrawing troops.
Democrats also remain haunted by the success of the Bush team to produce victories against the odds in recent elections. The GOP's skills at identifying and mobilizing voters in 2002 and 2004 have prompted major reassessments inside the Democratic family about how to respond, with splits between Dean's DNC and Washington-based Democratic strategists and congressional leaders over how to allocate resources.
Dean has emphasized the need to appeal to the grass roots and to rebuild state parties in blue and red states. To that end, he has created what he calls the 50-state project and has deployed 175 DNC-funded organizers nationwide. Democratic state chairmen give the program rave reviews, not least because the DNC continues to hand out checks to help underwrite their operations. But some Democrats in Washington fear the strategy is financing operations in states the Democrats cannot win in 2008, and that that could shortchange some targeted races in 2006. These differences permeate attitudes about Dean's stewardship.
For all the problems Bush and has team have encountered in the past 15 months, Democratic strategists hold the Bush operation in high regard when it comes to campaign tactics. "The Republicans are good at acquiring power," strategist Mike Stratton said. "They're even better at maintaining power. I think they are going to rally up here, particularly financially, and they'll be willing to throw anything in, including the kitchen sink, to win these elections. We just can't take this wind at our backs for granted."
Others say the Republicans have exploited the weaknesses of Democratic candidates. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, for example, blamed the Democrats for being soft in the face of aggressive GOP campaign tactics. "We have not demonstrated the mental toughness up to this point -- and smarts," he said.
Still, some party leaders believe Republican advantages in running campaigns has begun to erode with Bush's declining poll numbers. In 2002, for example, Georgia was at ground zero in demonstrating the power of GOP campaign techniques, as an unexpected surge of Republican voters defeated both then-Sen. Max Cleland and then-Gov. Roy Barnes. In 2004, the Republican turnout operation proved superior once again in many battlegrounds.
Now Kahn sees hope for Democrats. In past elections, the appeal of Bush as messenger helped motivate grass-roots Republicans, and party mechanics did the rest to get them to the polls. "They had the ultimate messenger," he said. "Well, I don't think that works right now -- not even in Georgia. The national meltdown has found its way to Georgia. Now we have to pick up the ball and run with it."
But if Bush's strength has been diminished, the Democrats have no comparable leader to galvanize the party for the midterm elections. The burden this year falls heaviest on Dean, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), but all three have detractors.
Many Democrats say that in a midterm election, a singular party leader is not crucial, that individual candidates across the country can carry the party's message. But Fowler pointed to the Republican success in 1994, when the GOP captured the House and Senate in a year when the voters turned against then-President Bill Clinton, to underscore one distinction with the Democrats this year.
"The difference between now and '94 is we don't have a Newt Gingrich. It's just that simple," he said in reference to the year Republicans captured control of Congress. "But if we find ourselves a message, we could do [to Republicans] almost what they did to us in '94."
Elaine Kamarck, a longtime party strategist, said Democrats should have a big year this year regardless of whether their campaigns are letter-perfect. "I think they are better still than we are in campaign politics," she said in reference to Republicans. "But I think that when you've been an incumbent for so long, reality trumps politics. By this time, every mess in the world or here is their mess, without anybody's question, and I don't think you can get out of that with politics."
For now, that remains the Democrats' default strategy for November.