By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; A02
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.
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.
"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.
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.
But more help is coming, thanks to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In the conversations between House leaders and White House officials, she managed to leverage the Gibbs episode into a commitment from the president's team for additional high-level help for her troops this fall.
Van Hollen offered this defense of the White House: "I know for a fact that the president and the White House [team] are absolutely committed to maintaining a Democratic majority in the House," he said. "They know that the future success of the president's agenda depends on a Democratic majority in the House, and they also know that the day after the election, the elections will be interpreted as a referendum on the president's policies -- whether they like it or not."
The Democrats have gained 55 seats in the past two election cycles (including recent special elections). One senior White House official calculates that about 30 of those are in districts whose makeup is conservative enough that they do not really belong in the Democrats' column.
A House Democrat made a similar point by noting that Democrats hold 80 seats in districts won by George W. Bush in 2004 and 49 in districts won by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. Both highlight the amount of GOP-leaning territory Democrats must defend. "That tells us that we have almost every swing district right now, which means you're in borrowed territory," the House Democrat said.
White House and House officials see a path for holding the House, unless the wave of reaction against the president's policies and unrest over the economy swamps even the smartest and best prepared of embattled incumbents -- which is what happened in 1994.
For Democrats, the strategy for survival requires changing public perceptions about the economy, working on the margins to save some vulnerable incumbents and picking off a few Republican-held seats as a buffer against anticipated losses.
Emanuel said he thinks Democrats were making progress earlier in the spring until they were hit by what he calls "the G force" -- the oil spill in the gulf, the debt crisis in Greece and the controversy over Israel's attack on a ship carrying aid to Gaza. "We hit this wall," Emanuel said.
The White House also suffered a setback when the last jobs report showed tepid employment growth and from a string of days in which the stock market tumbled. The president's approval rating on the economy, measured by the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, dropped seven points in a month.
The president's challenge will be to convince voters that conditions truly are improving, to boost confidence in the future and in his leadership. He also will have the principal responsibility of making the case against the Republicans. But the president's advisers are also correct when they say much will depend on how effective individual Democrats are in making the case against their opponents.
For Democrats, saving the House will require a team effort, which is why officials look at the past week in discouragement. Few teams win when they are fighting among themselves.