Leaders Anxiously Recast the Message

Posted September 30, 2008 at 6:46pm

With the political blame game dominating the headlines, Democratic and Republican Senators went into damage-control mode Tuesday, launching a rare bipartisan message offensive to try to quell market concerns and sell the massive financial rescue package to the electorate.

Senate leaders encouraged the rank and file to shelve any partisan attacks and spend the next two days trying to sway a wary and frustrated public.

With the Senate chamber open but no business being conducted because of Rosh Hashana, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) drew up nearly identical messaging strategies, sending a string of lawmakers to the floor to extol the need to take action and recount instances of the crisis already affecting communities in their states.

With the fate of the economic recovery bill uncertain, playing the message card was the obvious choice for both leadership teams Tuesday, lawmakers and leadership aides said.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in a conference call — one of several set up during the day — acknowledged that the way the legislation has been cast caused significant problems for Congress and the administration in selling the plan. “It’s time for people in the media and it’s time for political leaders to connect the dots for people,” Kerry said, warning that if a bill does not pass, “small businesses will not be able to get loans. And jobs, potentially millions of jobs, will be lost.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) agreed, noting that “the belief over here at least is to try to bring a little bit of calm to the process and that it requires a bipartisan solution. … It’s important we try as hard as we can to sanitize it of political vitriol.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) armed his Members with talking points stressing that “inaction is not an option” and urged them to stress the implications for students, small businesses and other institutions in local communities.

According to a copy of the talking points, Alexander stressed that Members in their remarks argue that “This is about Main Street. Small businesses and individuals across the country are struggling. Every American with a savings account, retirement investments, mortgage, auto loan, education loans, even credit card debt, is counting on us. (If possible, give specific examples from your own state of how people are impacted.)”

Members of both parties said the biggest hurdle has been in overcoming the way the Treasury Department first presented the plan. Once it was billed as a “bailout,” lawmakers were on the defensive trying to convince the public that the money would be put to shore up key credit institutions and lenders, rather than padding the wallets of Wall Street fat cats.

“If there’s one thing every Member of both the House and Senate can agree on, it’s that the initial sales job on the bill was a complete and utter disaster,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said. “That’s why there’s a rebranding from all four corners.”

Senators in both parties had clearly gotten their cues by midmorning and were carefully staying on message, avoiding overly partisan language and stressing the real-world implications of the financial crisis. For instance, in a conference call with local and national reporters, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) warned “there is a risk commerce could grind to a halt … people are taking money out of their banks, looking for a safe place like treasuries, or frankly, under their mattresses.”

During his floor speech, Alexander warned of similarly dire consequences. “I hope we don’t have to wait for dozens and dozens of banks to fail, for payroll checks to bounce and for auto loans to dry up before the Congress decides we need to act. What we’re trying to do is to prevent a more serious problem by taking a measured response, which will cost the taxpayers the least amount of money and clear up the economic traffic so it can start moving again,” Alexander said.

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and others spent hours on the chamber floor recounting anecdotal stories that they have heard from constituents back home regarding credit lines drying up and urging bipartisan action.

One Senate Republican — after a series of conference calls with chambers of commerce members, hospital administrators and others — said his staff is directing local press covering the economic recovery package to individuals in the state who can provide direct testimonials of the effects of the financial crisis.

But the real sales job may not come until this weekend and beyond, when Senators return home for a month or more. Aides in several Democratic and Republican offices said that while by Tuesday afternoon they had begun to receive some calls and e-mails in support of an “economic recovery” plan, the vast majority of constituent correspondence was still firmly opposed to a “Wall Street bailout.” And with the November election now fully in view, even those safe lawmakers hope to mollify concerns at home over the massive rescue plan.

“A lot of people can’t get past giving $700 billion — to who or for what,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “That’s the challenge.”

Yet this staffer said the clock is ticking, and Democrats are unlikely to reshape public opinion before the chamber adjourns for the election.

“I doubt, unless the president can deliver and put all he has left behind it, that we’ll see a sea change in opinion” before Congress leaves town, the aide said.

“We’ve got to explain to people why this matters to them in their communities and on Main Street,” a senior GOP Senate aide said. “The message isn’t getting through — and this is all hands on deck, regardless of party.”