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Democrats must get out of their bunker to stem disaster in November

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, January 17, 2010

You can learn everything you need to know about the current Democratic state of mind from House Democrats' decision to hold their annual retreat last week in a bunker.

Usually the retreat is at Virginia's Kingsmill Resort and Spa (slogan: "Stay. Play. Getaway."), but Democrats aren't in a playful mood (and who could blame them, with public support for Congress at 1994 levels?). So they first sought out the security of a military base, Fort McNair. When they realized they couldn't hold a political event at a military installation, they moved to the Capitol Visitor Center, in a windowless stone chamber two floors underground. In the hallways outside, emergency escape signs taped to the walls announced "Area of Refuge."

It must have been a comforting location for a party in need of a refuge, if not a group discount on Zoloft. But retreating to a bunker is, metaphorically, the worst place for Democrats to be right now. It's going to be a bad November for the party, but the surest way to turn a bad election into a catastrophe is to spend this year in a bunker. Now that the subterranean gathering is over, Democrats need to be a party of No Retreat.

President Obama visited the bunker Thursday to offer condolences. "Believe me, I know how big a lift this has been," he said of the Democrats' unpopular health-reform legislation, assuring the lawmakers that "I see the polls" and "I know that some of you have gotten beaten up at home." Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who is in charge of the House Democrats' 2010 campaign effort, felt the need to reassure his colleagues with a speech insisting that "this is not 1994 deja vu."

But it will take more than words to calm this panic:

-- The national party has pumped $1 million into TV ads in Massachusetts in the past week to avoid defeat in a special Senate election. Bill Clinton and Obama himself are stumping in what should be a safely Democratic state to prop up the flailing Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, whose loss could doom the health-care legislation in the Senate.

-- On Friday night, Rep. Vic Snyder (Ark.) became the fifth Democrat from a competitive district to call it quits in recent weeks rather than risk defeat. Senate Democratic veterans Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd have done the same, while Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama has defected to the GOP.

-- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in jeopardy of losing his own reelection, has embarrassed the party with serial apologies and clarifications for talking about Obama's lack of a "Negro dialect" and claiming he was "double-crossed" by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

-- At the White House, the president and his aides have been canceling events and clearing schedules as they bounce between the latest natural and man-made calamities. Obama hasn't risked a full news conference since July. Liberal activists are calling for the head of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Skittish White House aides took the unusual step last week of confiscating their fellow Democrats' cellphones and BlackBerrys as administration officials negotiated a health-care deal with lawmakers in the Cabinet Room.

The panic will deteriorate into a full freak-out if Democrats lose in Massachusetts on Tuesday. But the current level of anxiety is enough to be self-fulfilling: depressed Democratic incumbents retire, depressed recruits decline to run and depressed donors don't give.

Facing such a death spiral, Democrats have an unhappy choice: They can pass health-care reform and have a losing year, or they can shelve health-care reform and have a disastrous year. Voters may not like the health-care bill, but they'll punish the majority party even more for dithering and drifting without accomplishing anything.

That was inherent in the message Bill Clinton, who knows something about the lessons of '94, gave House Democrats when he visited the bunker on Friday: "The worst thing you can do is nothing."

Democrats have plenty of advantages they didn't have back then, most notably the fact that support for the GOP is barely half what it was in '94. With more news like last week's -- Pat Robertson blamed Haiti's earthquake on a "pact with the devil," yet still merited a seat of honor at the inauguration of Virginia's new Republican governor -- that won't change anytime soon.

And, of course, the Democrats' health-care reform plan went down in flames 16 years ago, an outcome the party can still prevent from happening again. That alone should be enough for Democrats to avoid another '94 -- assuming they abandon their Area of Refuge.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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