With Republican poll numbers falling and the nation focusing increasingly on domestic policy, House Democrats are feeling new political confidence and taking on a rare offensive posture against the GOP.
Through mid-August, Democrats were feeling emboldened as public confidence dipped in the U.S. handling of the Iraqi conflict, Social Security reform and Congressional ethics. Then Hurricane Katrina brought mounting questions about the Bush administration’s response to the disaster.
“Hurricane Katrina has certainly changed the political landscape in the short term,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “Whether it does in the long term is another question.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was the first to call on Congress to return to session early to pass a relief package for the disaster area and led her party’s call for Michael Brown, the then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to step aside.
Democrats were also quick to call for Congressional hearings and for a push back on the regular agenda to make room for Katrina-related legislation.
This week, Pelosi will lead the Democratic assault once again, scheduling at least three events on key issues on which Democrats charge the GOP has faltered. Democrats also will continue to raise questions about the Republican management of the federal government at a time when many Americans are looking for assistance.
Pelosi and other leaders will reiterate their call for the creation of a nonpartisan, independent commission to investigate the hurricane response, to urge creation of an independent anti-fraud panel to ensure proper oversight of the contracts awarded for the relief effort and to decry price gouging in the wake of rising fuel costs. The party also will announce the creation of a Democratic relief package for the victims of the hurricane.
One senior Democratic staffer said that Democrats feel not only that they are in a position to stake out some political ground, but that Pelosi is actually being heard.
“There are some opportunities here,” said the aide. “The president’s numbers are at an all-time low. We are showing that we can lead, and that we’re the ones who are listening.”
The latest polling by Newsweek Magazine shows President Bush’s job approval rating at 38 percent, and reports that just 28 percent are satisfied with the way things are going. It also showed hopeful numbers for Congressional Democrats, with 50 percent of Americans preferring Democratic candidates versus 38 percent for Republicans.
The same survey also showed that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 57 percent of Americans have lost confidence in the government’s ability to handle another disaster.
One top Republican House staffer said the GOP acknowledges that the mood of the country is not high given the war, Katrina and gas prices. But the staffer said that Republicans will rebound by passing legislation to help the victims, rebuild the Gulf Coast and bolster fuel supplies.
“If we can show we are working to solve the problems, we will regain our ground,” the aide said. “There are some real opportunities.”
A top Democratic House aide acknowledged that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Democrats have struggled to gain an upper hand against a GOP majority that bills itself as strong on security and values. But as Bush’s poll numbers have dipped and confidence in the war has fallen, the aide said, Democrats have been given a rare window of opportunity.
“When he’s weak, he can’t beat us up and call us obstructionists,” this aide said. “He’s not in a position of strength.”
“It all stems from Iraq,” the staffer added. “The voting public just doesn’t like what’s happening in Iraq. ... It’s created a dynamic that’s problematic for them and beneficial to us.”
As such, Republicans have accused Democrats of using the tragedy of Katrina for partisan gain.
“This is the classic example of the Democrats throwing as much mud against the wall to see what sticks,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “Our strategy is not to take the bait and move forward to help these people. Over time, people will grow tired of their antics.”
But Democratic leaders are rejecting the accusation. Rather, they insist they are simply working to protect Americans from any future catastrophe.
“It is clear that too many lessons went unlearned after September 11,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wrote in a letter to Roll Call to be published Thursday. “Democrats are speaking out and will continue to do so, demanding more from President Bush and Congress to ensure that we do everything necessary to fulfill our government’s basic obligation to protect Americans from danger. We can’t change the past, but we can change our future. And there is no excuse not to.”
And while they appear to be making some headway, Democrats acknowledge that they can’t get overly confident just yet. The party remains divided on the Iraqi conflict, among other things. But Democrats can strike hard against the GOP on core domestic issues including Social Security, federal assistance to disaster victims, the economy and ethics.
A senior Democratic aide said the test for the party and of its strength will really come in the months ahead.
“All four of those issues give Democrats a perfect opportunity to paint the ‘us versus them’ picture,” this staffer said. “This is what Democrats are about. It’s a matter of do we capitalize on it.”