What's next for Pelosi and Democrats in Congress?

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Post asked experts what's next for the Democrats in Congress. Below are responses from Karl Rove, Ed Rogers, Scott Keeter, Mary Beth Cahill, Martin Frost, Matthew Dowd and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

KARL ROVE

White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to George W. Bush; Wall Street Journal columnist; Fox News contributor

If Speaker Nancy Pelosi succeeds in becoming minority leader, then House Democrats will get more of the same of what they got on Tuesday night.

Pelosi is a damaged, deeply polarizing figure whose retention as House leader will guarantee continued difficulties for those Democrats who had rough races in red districts Tuesday and those Democrats whose seats tilt more red because of redistricting next year.

The soon-to-be former speaker will also feed President Obama's worst instincts. She shares the White House view that Tuesday was the result of inadequate communications, insufficiently liberal initiatives, and not curt enough dismissal of Republicans. These got Democrats into their electoral pickle: Pelosi's continuation will only make conditions worse in the House.

(A separate question for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is whether he's up to managing a chamber with a six-seat, rather than an 18-seat, margin. Will his skills, energy and attitude allow him to steer the Senate's business while creating moments of compromise with an emboldened GOP minority?)

The biggest question for congressional Democrats is whether President Obama tries to copy Bill Clinton's model of '95, giving the GOP some of what it wanted (in Clinton's case, balanced budgets and welfare reform) while getting what he wanted (more domestic spending)? Or will Obama attempt a Harry Truman '48, digging in his heels on a liberal agenda and blasting the GOP for opposing it? Darned if I know and, I suspect, darned if Obama really knows yet either.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

In politics, things are never as good or as bad as they seem. Republicans are portrayed as having won a "historic victory," suggesting they are now in charge. President Obama's reelection is widely reported to be in doubt - that he is a political zombie. But nothing is further from reality. Remember how dead the Republicans were two years ago? Well, the Democrats aren't dead, either, but they should also acknowledge that they lost because of bad policy. They say their losses came because of trickery or anonymous money or Karl Rove. The sooner they realize their policies have been rejected, the sooner they will regain their strength.

Republicans are praying that Nancy Pelosi will stay on. Should she succeed in her fight for the position of Democratic leader, Republicans will rejoice. We fear Steny Hoyer, who is a formidable and thoughtful leader and good on TV.

House Democrats have an ideal situation. They are an articulate minority with no burden of responsibility. The Democratic Senate can block almost anything the House passes. And the world's best bully pulpit is still at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The question for Democrats is: Can they placate their dissatisfied left wing to ensure high turnout in 2012 while at the same time bringing back to the fold the independents who elected Obama in 2008?

Ironically, if the White House is in the mood for compromise, the Republican House and the strengthened minority in the Senate may produce the good governance that will result in renewed economic momentum that could reelect Obama.

SCOTT KEETER

Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

The electorate rendered a harsh judgment on the Democratic Party's stewardship of the economy last Tuesday. As a consequence, a greatly weakened Democratic Party's legislative goals will largely be defensive for the next two years. Though polls this year have found a public preference for smaller government, Democrats in Congress may benefit from the mixed message the public sent with regard to specific policies. In fact, the Democrats have plurality or majority public support for defending many key policies Republicans will try to change.

Even among the strongly conservative electorate that voted this year, fewer than half in the national exit poll (48 percent) favored repealing the health-care law, and just 39 percent supported extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all income groups. Although the GOP has proposed slashing domestic program spending by $100 billion, a recent Pew Research poll found a 48 percent plurality opposing even a freeze on domestic spending. And the deficit, while a key issue for Republicans, was the top priority for only 37 percent of voters in the exit poll.

This suggests that, for all the talk about compromise in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike may feel like there's little incentive to compromise. This sentiment is likely to be strengthened by the fact that more than half of the conservative and moderate Blue Dog Democrats in the House were defeated.

MARY BETH CAHILL

Manager of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign; former chief of staff to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

Initially, the biggest adjustment House Democrats will face is the move out of the spotlight as the media focus shifts to the White House vs. the Republican leadership. The time in the wilderness can serve them well if they take advantage of it. The leadership will use the lame-duck session to poll the caucus, take its temperature and see what they have the stomach for in the next Congress.

Soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner will probably allow his right flank initial floor votes that matter to them ideologically. They'll lose, and he'll move on to parsing what might pass. Democrats should spend their time figuring out an economic program for the middle class that can be used as an umbrella for every vote they take, centered around housing, taxes and growth. They can own achievable objectives on education and food safety, which are very attractive to the female voters who deserted them in 2010. They could forge a labor-business coalition around deficit reduction measures to begin to rebuild tattered relationships. They will switch to losing votes to make a point.

Their biggest imperative has to be giving their members something future-oriented to talk about in their districts, even as they wait for the opportunities the fractious Republican caucus will undoubtedly offer.

MARTIN FROST

Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998; representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

The short-term electoral future of congressional Democrats is tied to the success or failure of President Obama in the next two years. He has to get his act together or Democrats will lose more House and Senate seats in 2012. Thus, it is time for a little tough love directed to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Specifically, congressional Democrats must insist that Obama and the people around him stop thinking and acting like out-of-touch suburban white liberals and figure out how to connect with mainstream America. There were two main examples during the campaign this fall - their preoccupation with the subject of corporate campaign money (something the average voter couldn't care less about) and their frequent visits to college campuses, speaking to young people who don't vote in off-year elections. They should have been focusing on the economic woes of middle-class, blue-collar voters and the insecurity of senior citizens. Their campaigning fell flat, and we got killed in the heartland of America.

Congressional Democrats must tell the White House that it had better focus on job creation and retirement security the next two years and leave campaign finance reform to the wine-and-cheese crowd. It's time for the president to stop being a college professor and to start being a smart, hard-nosed politician who leads a political party. If he doesn't, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will take him and our party to the cleaners.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; columnist for National Journal; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

House Democrats have dropped below their modern political floor of 200 seats for the first time since 1947. Put another way, President Obama and Nancy Pelosi have done for House Republicans what George Bush, Newt Gingrich, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were never able to do - give them a solid margin to govern with for the next two years.

While political change nowadays happens faster than a return trip to rehab for some celebrities, Democrats need to learn the lessons of Tuesday and not wallow in excuses if they are to have a positive future. They lost even though they outspent Republicans, even though they passed significant legislation, even with a well-spoken and very effective speechmaker in the White House. This wasn't a communications problem, or a marketing problem, or a base-enthusiasm problem; this was a problem of independents swinging wildly against Democrats because they didn't think folks in Washington were listening to them. And these folks have no trust that government can solve their problems.

Democrats need to heed this, listen and not retrench within their base. Their future is tied to connecting with the heartland, not just the two coasts, and meeting people where they are in their lives, not trying to convince voters that they know what's good for them. Tone and approach will be as important as substance in this conversation. They should start with what is good for the country and voters in their communities, not what is necessarily good for the party. In the end, that will be good for their party. (Of course, they can also wait for the Republicans to forget the lesson of this week's elections, which, if history is any guide, is bound to happen.)

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND

Lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003

Congressional Democrats should keep in mind that the most important question for Americans is how to create jobs, now and for the future. Democrats should tell the story of how America became an economic powerhouse -- it was a smart balance between government investment and private enterprise. Tax cuts alone aren't going to make us competitive, not with the Chinese government pouring billions into new forms of energy production, fast trains and technologies and so many of the wealthy investing in emerging markets.

Democrats need to have not just a conversation but an argument with Republicans -- a fight for America's future. They need to be clear that this country needs more manufacturing, more innovation and less real estate speculation -- we should produce more to export. Americans need to be not just consumers but also workers. We can't cut spending with unemployment at almost 10 percent, but we can plan for a fiscally prudent future. This is the time to remind people that Bill Clinton and other Democrats have demonstrated that Democrats are fiscally responsible.

Democrats also need to demand answers from Republicans -- how can we be innovative without research? Where is our competitive edge without education? Where will jobs come from if not investments in energy, biotechnology, manufacturing, and faster and more effective modes of transportation?


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