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For parties, the soul-searching begins
'Do people think we're tending to the things they care about?'

By Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

Democrats on Capitol Hill began a nervous debate Wednesday about the course President Obama has set for their party, with some questioning whether they should emphasize job creation over some of the more ambitious items on the president's agenda.

The conversations came as White House officials insisted that the party's gubernatorial defeats in Virginia and New Jersey had few implications for Obama's standing or for Democratic prospects in the 2010 midterm elections.

But moderate and conservative Democrats took a clear signal from Tuesday's voting, warning that the results prove that independent voters are wary of Obama's far-reaching proposals and mounting spending, as well as the growing federal debt. Liberal lawmakers, meanwhile, said the party's shortcoming came in moving too slowly on health-care reform and other items that would satisfy a base becoming disenchanted with the failure to deliver rapid change in government.

Voters in both states cited the economy as by far their top concern, and many lawmakers said the outcomes were a blunt wake-up call to put the issue front and center.

"The question is, do people think we're tending to the things they care about?" said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) as he left a meeting of Senate leaders. He said there was palpable concern among his colleagues Wednesday that the main agenda items Democrats are pursuing -- health care and climate change -- resonate very little with voters focused on finding or keeping jobs.

"Don't think people in my state are going to stand up and start cheering about Copenhagen," Rockefeller said, referring to the European city that will host a summit on global warming next month. Critics of the climate-change legislation before Congress say it would be a job-killer in states dependent on manufacturing and natural resources.

Obama all but ignored the election results, calling to congratulate the winners and traveling to Wisconsin for an education speech. But his top aides worked furiously to rebut the idea that Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia require a reassessment of the president's priorities.

"People went to the polls and voted on local issues, not to either register support for or opposition to the president," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters hours after the balloting. Asked whether moderate lawmakers might view the results differently, and thus worry about casting tough votes on Obama's agenda, Gibbs said no. "I don't think they will, and I'm not concerned," he said.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said that he and other White House aides will attempt to help the "merchants of conventional wisdom focus on the facts here." And he said there will be no change in the president's push for health-care reform -- nor a change in tactics by his lieutenants.

Signs of change

But there were clear signs that the landscape has changed for Democrats in the past year. Independents, who were crucial to Obama's election, swung dramatically to Republicans in both Virginia and New Jersey. If that pattern holds a year from now, Democratic lawmakers in swing districts could find themselves losing reelection battles.

The results left lawmakers less sanguine than the president's ever-confident advisers. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the results in his state and elsewhere have "somewhat of a chilling effect, potentially, on the agenda."

Connolly, who provided a detailed briefing on the results Wednesday morning to the 35 freshmen House Democrats, focused on what he called a "depressed Democratic base." Voters in the Old Dominion who had sided with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last November showed up in greater numbers Tuesday than those who voted for Obama last year, Connolly said he stressed to his colleagues.

"I concluded from last night, we've got to pass health care," Connolly said, adding that his message is: "Make sure I give Democrats something to be excited about."

Steve Elmendorf, a veteran Democratic strategist who was a top congressional aide when Democrats were chased from control of the House in a 1994 GOP landslide, said Wednesday that lawmakers are far less complacent today than they were 15 years ago.

"They need to pay attention to it," Elmendorf said. "Voters spoke, and I think the message they sent was they care about the economy and they care about jobs. I don't think there's any reason to panic here. We have to get health care done, and then we have to turn our attention to the economy and jobs."

Elmendorf said it was a "big deal" that the Democratic gubernatorial candidates lost independents, who he said were "a key to Obama's victory. They are a key to the Democrats' strength as a party."

Calls for more action

But many of the party's leading progressives echoed the idea that the elections showed the only way to build toward victory is to aggressively push the agenda items envisioned in January. "We have to do it all," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"It's a matter of tangibles being delivered," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "Victory breeds victory."

Others sought to take a pragmatic view of Tuesday's voting. Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), elected in the Democratic takeover of 2006 and a leader of the conservative wing of the caucus, dismissed the idea that the elections would have an impact on his vote on health-care legislation. That bill could reach the House floor as early as Saturday.

"The issues are particular to Virginia and New Jersey. You could just as easily turn to what happened in Upstate New York and extrapolate good news for Democrats," he said.

Aides in the West Wing also sought to highlight the Democratic victory Tuesday in New York's 23rd Congressional District.

"We won a congressional seat that's been in Republican hands since Ulysses S. Grant was president, in part because of the disunity in the Republican Party," Axelrod said. "That was the only truly national contest on the ballot."

Axelrod argued that the intervention of national conservatives to push the moderate GOP candidate out of that contest would be the only lasting lesson of the night.

"The most portentous thing that happened yesterday was that the right wing of the Republican Party ran a moderate Republican essentially out of the race, and lost a seat they had held for more than 100 years," he said. "I don't take that as discouragement."

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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