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Labor chief: Democrats 'too timid' on health care, economic efforts

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 12:39 PM

Charging that Democrats under President Obama have been too timid with their legislative agenda, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka argued Tuesday that the party's embattled lawmakers would be facing easier reelection campaigns had they been more ambitious on issues such as health care.

"What I hear on the ground is that people didn't say, 'You went too far on health care,' " Trumka said. "They say: 'You didn't do enough; you should've had a public option; you should've had this; you should've had that.' . . . No one has said to me, 'You know, Rich, you guys went too far on regulating Wall Street.' Most people want to tar and feather them for what they've done."

Had Democrats included a public insurance option in the health-care bill, union members would have been more enthusiastic about voting for them this year, Trumka said.

"Those battle-worn Democrats will understand that they faced a tough race this summer, not because they did too much, but because they did too little," he said.

Trumka, meeting with a half-dozen political reporters at the union's Washington headquarters, said he expects that Democrats will lose seats in both chambers of Congress but that they will hold their majorities.

Trumka criticized Obama as having given a muddled argument for his economic agenda but said the president has crystallized his message in recent weeks with a focus on job creation.

"I think the president's doing a much better job right now," Trumka said. "I think he stepped on his message for a while, whenever he was failing to distinguish between stimulus, job creation and the deficit. He was trying to give two messages, and they were stepping on each other."

The AFL-CIO, long a powerful Democratic ally, is mounting an aggressive field operation, particularly in states where union membership is relatively high, such as California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Illinois.

Roughly 25 percent of AFL-CIO members are undecided in the fall elections, said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director. She said labor organizers are targeting those voters with literature and one-on-one conversations at their workplaces and homes and that those targets would be "touched" 25 or more times before they vote.

"We focused on the ground this time more than we've done in the past because we knew how angry people out there were - justifiably angry because of what the economy's done for them," Trumka said. "But we're also pointing out that the economy that did the things that make them angry is the exact economy that [House Republican Leader John] Boehner is now pledging to go back to."

Trumka and Ackerman declined several times to say how much the organization is spending on the midterm elections.

Labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, spent more than $10 million to back Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's unsuccessful primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D). Some Democratic strategists, and even the White House, have said that the money would have been better spent defending Democrats against Republicans.

Trumka, however, said he had no regrets about spending so much money in Arkansas, calling the effort to defeat Lincoln "priceless" because it was based on principles. Trumka said the take-away for labor leaders is to engage in more primary races in the future, not fewer.

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