Governors Boost Democratic Message

Posted January 31, 2003 at 6:20pm

Stung by President Bush’s stranglehold on the Beltway bully pulpit and last fall’s setback in the midterm elections, Congressional Democrats have decided to put Democratic governors front and center in delivering their message.

From their responses to Bush’s national addresses to media events with liberal interest groups, Democratic governors are increasingly being pushed forward to be the faces of the party, particularly on challenging the governor-turned-president on the economic impact of his domestic policies.

“We think it’s time that the governors have more of a voice. The Democratic governors are going to be an integral part of our organizational effort as we consider public policy and our public response to the policy,” Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) recently said.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke’s (D) response to the State of the Union address was the most high-profile example of the new strategy, but Locke stuck around the Capitol to appear at the next day’s news briefing by Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to attack Bush’s Medicare proposals.

Before that, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) gave the response to one of Bush’s mid-January weekly radio addresses. Later this month, in an unusually inclusive move, Daschle said he plans to convene a caucus of every Democratic governor and Senator in the Capitol to further map out the message strategy.

Daschle and Pelosi held a bicameral Democratic leadership meeting Thursday, which also included Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, further laying the groundwork for looping governors into the message machine.

In some ways, the push to put governors forward is a tacit admission by Congressional Democrats that they can’t break through Bush’s dominance of the Washington-based media, whether it be on foreign or domestic policy matters. On state and local issues, governors can oftentimes command the same level of attention by their newspapers, allowing them to bash Bush and get an instant result in their media.

“They’re able to break through more at the local level,” one Democratic aide explained.

Congressional leaders were roundly criticized after the November elections for their inability to articulate a sharp contrast to Bush’s agenda, even taking heat from newly elected governors such as Richardson and Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell. With the new message strategy now taking effect, party strategists expect credit — or blame — will be spread across the nation among Democrats after the 2004 elections.

New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, for instance, came to Washington two weeks ago for a briefing with top labor leaders, including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald W. McEntee and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, to attack Bush for not covering the increasing costs that states are saddled with from Medicaid. Aides say McGreevey, who this week will unveil a budget that slashes spending in almost every agency, plans to take on Bush’s domestic spending plan as one of the prime reasons for the dramatic cuts in services at the state level.

Daschle has even expanded his chamber’s leadership team to include two of his Caucus’ former governors, Sens. Tom Carper (Del.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), both of whom are part of the leader’s new Executive Committee. While they are just entering their third year in the Senate and hail from the less populated moderate wing of the Caucus, Carper and Nelson get seats at the leadership table in meetings such as the Thursday briefing.

Nelson’s presence has already led to a new rhetorical line of attack against Bush. At a recent Caucus meeting, Nelson spoke of the need to turn “homeland security into hometown security,” a turn of phrase he feels resonates better with constituents and highlights Bush’s alleged underfunding of the local effort to prevent terrorist attacks.

Within days Daschle began regularly using the “hometown security” line himself.

Despite the very disappointing losses House and Senate Democrats suffered in November, Democratic gubernatorial candidates fared far better, gaining footholds in large states that had been long dominated by GOP governors.

While there were major disappointments in some races — Florida, New York, Maryland and Massachusetts — Democrats grabbed a hold of the governor’s mansion in places such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, New Mexico, Arizona and Maine. Four years ago at this point, Democrats held just 17 gubernatorial posts; they now hold 24.

And their governors provide a more diverse mosaic than the Senate Democratic caucus. Locke is the nation’s only Asian-American governor, while Richardson is known as one of the most prominent Hispanic politicians in the nation. Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm and Arizona’s Janet Napolitano provide Democrats with two powerful female governors.

Carper called the inclusion of governors in message delivery a “cross-pollination” that was a “masterstroke” because Congressional Democrats just don’t have the everyday common touch of governors.

“This place is insulated. They’re out there every day solving problems,” he said. “We can learn from each other, but we’ll probably learn more from them than they will from us.”

But the gubernatorial message machine is not bulletproof. Some Beltway pundits panned Locke’s choice as the responder to Bush, not necessarily because of his delivery but because his response was so focused on domestic issues at a time when Bush and the national media focused on Iraq.

And Republicans contend that nationally and internationally Bush will still command the “big megaphone” of the White House, and that they intend to paint Daschle as Public Enemy No. 1 in his efforts to be the lead antagonist to Bush’s agenda.

“Whether he likes it or not, the spokesman nationally for Democrats is Daschle. He will be the face of the party,” said one senior GOP Senate aide.

Republicans themselves went through a similar internal debate about how much to include governors in delivering their message after the 1998 elections, in which the GOP had a major disappointment Congressionally at the polls. In governor’s races, however, Republicans had major successes, claiming 31 governor’s mansions and winning big landslides in some major states, including Bush’s own re-election in Texas.

GOP governors then became the prime movers and shakers in the party, practically commandeering the presidential nomination process as most of them coalesced around Bush’s candidacy and locked up key supporters and fundraisers for the governor.

This time around, Democratic governors will not be playing quite as critical a role, given the fact that the most likely torchbearer against Bush will be one of five Congressional Democrats expected to make the race against Bush, not a Democratic governor.