After Massachusetts loss, Democrats vow to focus on economy, jobs

By Dan Balz and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A08

A day after their embarrassing loss in Massachusetts, splintered Democrats pledged to refocus their attention on jobs and the economy, and to draw sharper contrasts with Republicans, as they scramble to find a strategy to quell the populist anger that threatens the party's standing in the November elections.

Elected officials and Democratic strategists found little common ground, however, in the specifics of their response to their party's shellacking in Massachusetts, whether on how to proceed with a health-care bill that has become a political liability or on the elements of a jobs program that can dent the unemployment rate.

But they did agree that voters are prepared to punish them, not only because the economy has not improved faster, but also because they have not delivered on one of the central promises of President Obama's campaign: changing the way Washington does business.

Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said the proper course for Democrats now "is exactly the position the president took when he ran," which Dean said was to pledge that special interests would not run the government under his administration. "What voters think, unfortunately, is that they do run Washington," he said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said it was "just wrong" to interpret Republican state Sen. Scott Brown's victory over Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley in Massachusetts as a crushing defeat for the president, citing the vagaries of special elections and the difference in the quality of the two campaigns.

But he said Democrats must urgently begin to deliver on their promises in order to head off sizable losses later this year. "Let's give people a reason to turn out and vote for us," Rendell said. "Let's pass a jobs bill. Let's pass a health-care bill. Be a party. Stand up and get things done."

A focus on independents

Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), who as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee helped oversee Coakley's losing bid, said the key political ambition in the next 9 1/2 months is to "make sure we find a way to engage independent voters."

Coakley ran poorly among independents, according to pre-election polls, continuing a trend that surfaced in Virginia's and New Jersey's gubernatorial elections last November, when such voters deserted Democrats and backed Republicans.

But Menendez's House counterpart said focusing primarily on independents is a false choice that could leave the party's left flank demoralized and on the sidelines in November.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the party must find a way to pass a health-care bill, which would help soothe anger among liberals who feel slighted by the agenda so far, and should push an economic program that appeals to independents concerned about unemployment.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats are focused on the health-care conundrum -- whether they can quickly pass legislation and move on to other issues, principally the economy. "What we don't want to see is that this [health care] is to the exclusion of other things," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), a leading liberal. "You have to be able to see the finish line. We're now at the last hurdles. You have to have a plan that can win."

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said that he favors trying to finish health care but that it must be wrapped up quickly to allow a turn to a new agenda. "It's got to be jobs, almost exclusive of everything else," he said.

If the present climate holds through the fall, Pennsylvania Democrats face the prospect of losing the governor's mansion, a Senate seat and at least six House seats in November.

'It's our problem'

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said there is considerable impatience among voters and Democrats must be responsive. "My sense of it is that people in power, whether federal or state, are seen as the people who are responsible," he said. "We have an affirmative responsibility to do so something about these issues."

Markell predicted that once the unemployment rate starts to go down, some of the anger in the electorate will ease. "Until then, it's our problem," he said.

The lack of consensus in the Senate about job creation complicates Democrats' desire to show the public that they are focused on the economy. "The tough part for Democrats is that it is a governance issue, a really substantive problem," said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist. "The Republicans don't have to deal with it. All they have to deal with is, 'We don't like what they're doing.' "

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler said part of the party's problem is that "people voted for change, and change didn't happen the next day. . . . There are lot of people in this country who are miserable, who want something done. Voting people out, whether they've been in office a week or years, seems like the way to get change."

Fowler said Democrats must move more aggressively to hold Republicans accountable for their opposition to the administration's agenda, rather than changing the agenda.

Carrick agreed that drawing sharp contrasts is the key to survival for Democratic candidates this fall. He pointed to the 1994 elections, when Republicans rode anger at Washington and dissatisfaction with the Clinton administration to a landslide takeover of the House and the Senate. "The few that survived at the top of the tickets were campaigns that recognized the situation they were in and moved aggressively to frame the election as a comparative choice," he said.

Looking ahead to this fall, Carrick added, "This is not going to be a campaign where we're going to see people talking in lofty terms about the future of the country."

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