The Sunday Take

Democrats engage in 'circular firing squad'

Press secretary Robert Gibbs caused a furor when he said the House seats in play
Press secretary Robert Gibbs caused a furor when he said the House seats in play "could cause Republicans to gain control." (Saul Loeb/agence France-presse Via Getty Images)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

In a week when Congress finally passed financial regulatory reform and the oil finally stopped gushing in the gulf, Democrats spent much of their time on an enterprise they can ill afford: arguing among themselves.

The Democrats' political mission is clear. They want to prevent Republicans from taking control of the House. But for five days they engaged in what one administration official called "a circular firing squad" over an accurate -- if incomplete -- assessment of the political climate voiced by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

At a time when their goal is to persuade voters to see the fall elections as a choice, rather than a referendum on President Obama's leadership, this was an opportunity lost. "We're certainly not driving a contrast in this election when we're fighting among ourselves," a senior administration official lamented at the end of the week.

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Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Gibbs said enough House seats are in play "that could cause Republicans to gain control." What was so controversial about that? Republicans need to pick up an additional 39 seats to take control. Two of the best House handicappers in the country -- Stu Rothenberg and Charlie Cook -- show more than 60 Democratic districts at risk.

Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, offered much the same assessment several weeks ago. No one in the House raised a hand in protest. Other Democratic strategists have been even more pessimistic in their forecasts. But such is the power of the official White House spokesman's words that Gibbs's comments created uproar in the ranks.

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"It was mathematically true, but he failed to complete the sentence," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of Gibbs's assessment. "For 18 months we at DCCC and I specifically have made it clear that we are facing a very tough political season. We've also made it clear that at the end of the day we will retain our majority in the House."

The episode revealed the insecurity of many House Democrats as they look ahead to a November Election Day that is likely to result in significant losses. They have taken tough votes, on health care and energy and the economy. Some of them are not convinced the White House will have their back this fall. They believe the president and his team care less about 2010 than about 2012. They resent the Senate for failing to complete work on some of the bills they've passed.

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White House officials see the situation through a different lens. At the encouragement of the president's political team, they say, the Democratic National Committee will be transferring $20 million to the Democratic House, Senate and gubernatorial campaign committees -- a princely sum compared with past years. The DNC also will spend millions trying to mobilize those first-time voters from 2008 who are less likely to vote this year.

White House officials argue that House Democrats have no better friend and ally than Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former member of the House leadership and the architect of the party's 2006 victories. They also point to the schedule of Vice President Biden, who has been in a slew of House districts already, with more visits planned.

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