Senate Democrats to Focus on ‘Strength’

Posted September 21, 2005 at 6:42pm

Senate Democrats have identified five issue areas on which they will campaign next year, but are still sorting out who will spearhead each issue and what the overarching message theme will be.

The party’s message “focuses on strength, not just our [national] security, but a strong energy policy, a strong economy,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) following a special meeting of the Senate Democratic Caucus on Wednesday to talk about the 2006 election message strategy.

Indeed, Durbin said the Democratic message would focus on America’s security interests, whether that ends up encompassing terrorism at home, the war in Iraq, oil supplies, or economic security. Though Republicans used a similar theme successfully in the 2004 elections, Durbin said Democrats may have the advantage now.

“We are now post-[Hurricane] Katrina. We have seen what [their] promise of strengthened security has meant for hundreds of thousands of people, and it has shaken the confidence of the American people on the competence of this administration,” he said, referring to the bungled federal response to the hurricane’s aftermath.

Besides national security, energy independence and economic strength, Democrats also plan to highlight retirement security, health care and other issues that may come to the floor. Five different Senators and their chiefs of staff will be designated to lead each effort in what Democratic leaders hope will be a successful repeat of the campaign against President Bush’s plans to overhaul Social Security, an effort led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his chief of staff, Jim Messina. Baucus will likely continue in his role as the principle retirement security guru for Democrats.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and her chief of staff Michael Meehan will continue to lead Democrats’ efforts to push their energy agenda, which includes a bill to empower the Federal Trade Commission to go after gasoline price gouging more aggressively and proposals to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Cantwell was asked to lead the effort two weeks ago, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Democrats are considering asking Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to guide the health care agenda, focusing on the rising cost of health insurance, while Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) may be asked to take the lead on national security and homeland security efforts, the leadership aide said.

While they have mapped out their issue areas, Democrats are still looking for a theme catchy enough to attract the media and the public’s attention. One Democratic source indicated that Democratic pollsters would be shopping around ideas, such as “Families First,” to see what appeals to the broadest range of people.

Durbin acknowledged that the messaging operation needs vetting, given how difficult it can be for Democrats’ ideas to push through the news on what the Republican majority is doing.

“Keep in mind what it takes for a minority party to craft a message and deliver it so you’ll print it,” he told a group of reporters.

While the effort by Senate Democrats was designed to express the urgency of unity at an early stage of the election cycle, some Democrats acknowledged that this was a near-annual effort at trying to figure out how to deliver their message.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who joked with reporters afterward that he wasn’t allowed to divulge any decisions, said such discussions were “useful exercises” but that many Senators have developed their own way of communicating to their constituents.

“Everyone’s going to go back and do what they do anyway,” Dodd said.

Illustrating that point, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who has to walk a fine line as a Democrat running for re-election next year in an overwhelmingly Republican state, said the session “helps me sharpen my message,” while indicating that, as he often does, he may have to stray from the official Senate Democratic message as he campaigns for another term.

Though they’ll be conducting polling and testing their new message before formally adopting it, Democrats are still ahead of Senate Republicans in strategizing for the 2006 midterms.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has advocated refocusing the GOP message on healthcare costs and rising gas prices, said the Senate GOP Conference had not yet begun conversations about its election year agenda, but he said those talks would have to come soon.

“We need to be doing it this fall. We’ve got to come out of the box fast next year,” he said.

In addition to hashing out among themselves the message for the 2006 elections, Senate Democrats heard advice from a handful of veterans from the Clinton administration about the topic, including Paul Begala, Mike McCurry, John Podesta and Doug Sosnik.

Also on hand was billionaire Hollywood producer and Democratic donor Steve Bing, who wore a black T-shirt, jeans and running sneakers to the meeting inside the Johnson Room off the Senate floor. Bing did not participate much at all in the meeting, according to those present.

He declined to explain his reasons for attending, telling Roll Call that he has never granted a media interview in his entire life.

On another front, the Democrats’ main outside ally in the fight against Bush’s Social Security proposal, Americans United to Protect Social Security, announced in an internal memo that they would be declaring victory over Bush.

In a conference call and meeting with its staff in Washington, D.C., and its field directors scheduled for today, the group said it was now planning its “final phase” of the fight.

“We must declare victory in this fight and make it clear that privatization has lost because it is a bad idea and because Americans United and our allies have run a model national issue campaign of nearly unprecedented scale and intensity,” wrote Ann Widger, an aide for the group.

With the Social Security battle nearing the victory stage for liberals, discussions are under way in regard to what to do with Americans United.

Financially, the group always has been on shaky ground with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as its main financial backer. Today’s meeting of Americans United and its coalition partners is being held at AFSCME headquarters here in D.C.

This week, Americans United began laying off some staff, said several sources in the Democratic activist community.

AFSCME officials hope to reach an agreement with other labor leaders and individual donors to keep Americans United around with a broader mission to tackle other issue items beyond just Social Security. But that issue has not been decided.

One Democrat familiar with those talks said the group always has been somewhat bloated in staff size, so shedding some staff might improve its longer-term survival prospects.

“By running a more streamlined organization, it will also make it more attractive to donors, particularly those outside of labor,” the Democratic source said.