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Democratic strategies for 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010; A13

After a week of turmoil in the Democratic party, how should the Dems think about the midterm elections? Below are contributions from Geoff Garin, Kiki McLean, Steve Rosenthal, Matthew Dowd, Justin Ruben, Karl Rove and Ed Rogers.

GEOFF GARIN

Democratic pollster and strategist; president of Hart Research Associates

In Congress, 2009 was a year of beginnings, but 2010 must be a year of conclusions. So the question of how the Democrats should proceed is not about boldness vs. caution but about what is actually achievable given Republicans' massive resistance to real change. Democrats don't have to win every legislative battle this year, but if a fight can't be won legislatively, it is worth taking on at this point only if Democrats are prepared to aggressively debate it and win it politically during the fall campaigns.

So far, the Democrats have done the most important thing they possibly could with their majority: They prevented this country from falling into the economic abyss, despite Republicans' best efforts to obstruct any action when it was desperately needed to address the disaster left behind by George W. Bush. There is still a long way to go to fix the economy and reduce unemployment, but we would be much worse off, and much further from a real recovery, if Republicans had succeeded in blocking Democrats' efforts to respond the economic crisis in the first few months of 2009.

It's hard to think of a better use of the majority this year than trying, as the Democrats have, to address the fundamental problems that caused the economic crisis: the reckless behavior of Wall Street and the big banks; predatory treatment of consumers by finance companies and health insurers; the failure to address our dependence on foreign oil; and the unwillingness of Bush and the Republicans to pay for their spending and tax cuts.

CATHERINE A. "KIKI" MCLEAN

Democratic strategist; partner at the public relations firm Porter Novelli

In for a penny, in for a pound. The Democratic majority has pursued the agenda that it promised voters in 2008 and that circumstances dictated. President Obama and members of Congress from across the country campaigned on promises of a reformed health-care system; energy legislation; a stronger, stable financial system; and a return to economic growth and job creation. Arguments about whether to tackle these issues one at a time or simultaneously are simply about tactics, not about the value or desire of the American people to see Congress make real progress.

Ten months from Election Day is not the time to abandon those efforts. The legislative process and the constant debate can be tiring, and irritating. It can exhaust the goodwill of voters. But an agenda unfulfilled is far more politically dangerous than the challenges of writing and passing legislation. Members of both parties will be held accountable to their campaign promises by their constituents, who believe that the status quo is unacceptable.

Delivering change is not without pain, but abandoning one's investment in making change happen is just shortsighted.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

Midterm elections historically bring a wave against the party in power in Washington. To strengthen their seawall, Democrats must do three things:

-- Demonstrate substantive bipartisanship. This has to include authentic attempts at compromise. Invite Republicans to meetings every day and keep pushing for joint policies. Make the Republicans not show up, reject real overtures and turn their backs on sincere offers to work together. President Obama needs to decide if he is head of the country or head of his party, because in today's polarized environment, you can't be both. He should take on parts of his Democratic constituency on domestic concerns -- supporting an unpopular war in Afghanistan doesn't bolster bipartisan credentials to the public.

-- On jobs and the economy, show that they care more about Main Street problems than Wall Street profits. This cannot be empty threats. If a New York investment house is teetering, let it fail. If General Motors can't show a profit very soon, don't throw more good money after bad. And come up with some non-federal-government-based solutions to create jobs. Government is the only sector that has increased employment levels the past year, which is not economically or politically sustainable.

-- Show real fiscal responsibility. Cut inefficient programs and end ineffective bureaucracies -- by the billions, not just in the millions of dollars of waste. They can't rely on promises of future deficit reduction to be accomplished in five or 10 years. The country is tired of this empty talk from both sides. Bring in someone like Jack Welch and say you are going to reorganize government to fit the needs of the 21st century.

Doing this would significantly minimize the losses Democrats are (still) likely to suffer. As Bill Clinton saw in 1994, losing at some point is sometimes the best route to victory two years later. I predict that Republicans will do very well this year and then will misread what the country is saying and push unpopular policies -- setting up President Obama to run against them in 2012.

STEVE ROSENTHAL

President of the Organizing Group, a D.C. consulting firm; former political director of the AFL-CIO

Democrats must push even harder in 2010 for the progressive agenda. Voters are frustrated and angry -- they voted for change in '08 and feel like they haven't gotten it. Some Democratic pros are saying, "We have to hope the economy turns around before November." Hope was the key word in '08, but action is key in 2010.

First, pass health care -- without taxing working families. Don't give the Republicans an issue to run on. They have no ideas or credibility. Then, do as Candidate Obama said: Create jobs by putting people to work immediately to fix our schools, rebuild our transportation and communications infrastructure, and invest in "green" technology and energy efficiency. That's what independents, Democratic base voters and the Obama surge voters turned out for in record numbers in 2008. They want to know their elected officials are fighting for them -- and they want the change they voted for.

A September poll by Hart Research for the Economic Policy Institute found that a staggering 81 percent of voters said the Obama administration wasn't doing enough to combat unemployment. Make the investment huge -- do not scale back jobs programs for fear of increasing the deficit. Bill Clinton taught us that putting people to work expands the economy and balances the budget. Finally, pass the Employee Free Choice Act to ensure that the jobs created are good jobs with good benefits that will bolster the middle class.

JUSTIN RUBEN

Executive director of MoveOn.org

Democrats have one path to victory in November: Come out swinging, and make sure that every thing they say or do in 2010 is about helping regular folks weather the economic crisis, and taking on the special interests that stand in the way.

This would be a major departure from 2009: Washington stood by while Wall Street firms that had taken hundreds of billions of our tax dollars swiftly returned to practices that led to the meltdown. Pro-bank Democrats killed real mortgage reform; they watered down the financial regulations bill in the House and are poised to gut it in the Senate. Pharma and Big Insurance scored high-profile victories on health care, and while what's left will still help most Americans, this hasn't sunk in yet for voters. Likewise, the stimulus did some good, but it was overshadowed by the Troubled Assets Relief Program and the bailout of the auto companies.

Many good Democrats did their best. But by the time the lobbyists got through with the Democratic agenda, it looked a lot less like change America could believe in.

Why hasn't the party already embraced a full-throated economic populism? Because the Democratic establishment is counting on Wall Street to finance the election. Here's the thing, though: All the corporate cash in the world can't make up for a disillusioned base and a tarnished brand. Instead, Democrats need to get out there and fight for the little guy -- and start enforcing serious party discipline on rank-and-file members who stand in the way. Their own electoral self-interest -- not to mention the public interest -- demands nothing less.

KARL ROVE

White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to George W. Bush; columnist for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal; Fox News contributor

Congressional Democrats pushed through ineffectual legislation such as the stimulus that didn't produce the promised results.

They raised discretionary spending by 24 percent from President George W. Bush's last full-year budget and will run up more debt by October than Bush did in eight years.

They made a priority of the unpopular cap-and-trade energy tax while Americans were worried about jobs and the economy.

They squandered every opportunity for the bipartisanship President Obama promised in his campaign.

Then they ended the year with a pork-filled monstrosity of a health-care bill that's increasingly detested.

The solid support that Democrats enjoyed at the start of 2009 among independents and college-educated voters is gone: They and seniors have propelled the GOP to a nine-point lead in Rasmussen's generic ballot.

Congressional Democrats can't reverse their midterm fortunes by trying to pass itsy-bitsy pieces of insignificant but popular legislation. Voters will stay fixated on their existing mistakes. So Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should push for big things:: In for a penny, in for a pound. It would be hard to come up with less popular causes than they've already embraced. So find something that might redirect voter anger, especially if Republicans cooperate by failing to offer a positive alternative. Good luck: You made the mess.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

Democrats spent most of their time and rhetoric the past year on issues that differed from what voters cared about most. Their urgent challenge in 2010 is to return to the political bull's-eye, which means they must adjust their agenda to true economic circumstances.

While 2010 has to be about creating jobs and controlling spending, everything that was easy to do in Washington has been done. It will be tough to reduce spending after promises have been made and constituencies have been partially bought by the stimulus programs and other giveaways. Even worse for the Democrats, they must produce jobs and create growth when their agenda and philosophy do the opposite. Democrats must be pro-growth and support an agenda that is dictated by labor unions and the trial bar -- supporting energy programs that are designed to raise prices; celebrating a health-care overhaul that produces very few winners (and a lot of confusion); and sounding tough on terror while refusing to treat terrorists as enemies in a war.

What the Dems really want to do is tax and spend and pretend that they can make our enemies love us. In politics, you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time, and that is usually good enough to win. But voters aren't stupid. It will be hard for the Democrats to reconcile what they really believe with what voters know needs to be done.

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