Democrats Tout ’80 Reagan Line

Posted May 17, 2004 at 6:41pm

Congressional Democrats this week will try to turn a Republican icon’s words back against the current GOP leadership, asking voters to assess whether they’re better off now than they were four years ago when Bill Clinton was president.

Senate and House Democrats plan a message blitz beginning today focusing on jobs and the economy, and will pivot to a different topic over the next three days in an effort to contrast their differences with Republicans on major policy issues.

The theme of this latest Democratic communications effort is “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — a question made famous when GOP presidential nominee Ronald Reagan asked it of voters during his successful run for the White House in 1980.

Just as Republicans back then argued that Americans had become worse off after four years under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, Democrats will now argue that the country has slipped while under Republican control of the White House, Senate and House.

“If it was a fair question for Ronald Reagan to ask in 1980, then it is even more important now as the country decides whether to pursue the current path or change course,” said Todd Webster, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

“It’s a legitimate question,” added Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Are you better off? In many areas, certainly we are not and there’s a reason for that. It’s not acceptable. This isn’t something that just happened. It happened because of the policies of this administration and the Republican Congress.”

Pelosi is expected to kick off the message assault for the House Democrats when she takes the floor this morning.

Democratic Senators and House Members will follow with a series of floor speeches, newspaper columns, and radio and television interviews. Members will sharply criticize the Republican leadership and President Bush for the GOP’s stewardship of the country and implore voters to restore Democratic rule in Washington.

For the rest of the week, Democrats will highlight their dissatisfaction with the GOP’s handling of education and health care (Wednesday), national security (Thursday) and a broader question of “Who is better off than four years ago?” in an attempt to demonstrate that Bush is more interested in helping only the wealthiest Americans.

John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), called the Democratic message strategy “flawed,” saying that on Iraq, the economy and major domestic policies the GOP has succeeded for the American people.

“On issue after issue, we’ve delivered and Democrats — especially the Democratic leadership — have just voted no,” Feehery said.

He said Republicans, meanwhile, would frame their pre-recess message around their accomplishments, from economic growth and jobs to Medicare prescription drugs to the war in Iraq.

Democratic Party leaders have circulated talking points to their Members to direct their speeches and interviews. An internal House Democratic memo urges Members to hammer the Bush administration on “failures to plan for operations in Iraq and a complete failure to plan here at home.” The talking points also encourage Members to characterize Republicans as “Clueless in the Capitol.”

A Democratic Senate leadership aide said this coordinated message strategy has “been in the works for some time,” suggesting that this theme will be repeated throughout the summer and into the fall. It also coincides with Congressional Democrats’ larger goal of boosting Kerry’s presidential bid, and the House Democrats’ targeted theme that “it’s time for a change.”

“What’s happened in the last four years?” the Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “Wages have been flat; gas prices, college tuition, and health-care costs have skyrocketed [and] millions of jobs have been lost.”

At a debate with President Carter one week before the 1980 elections, Reagan took his campaign directly to the voters by asking the “four years ago” question. His rhetoric helped highlight the nation’s sluggish economy and the Iranian hostage standoff.

Reagan defeated Carter that year and went on to serve two terms in the White House, solidifying his standing among conservative Republicans. But some Democrats note the parallel that 24 years later, the economy is again struggling and the United States is engaged in a crisis in the Middle East.