Thursday, November 20, 2014

Democrats See Politics As War

Enough, Donna Brazile told White House political director David Simas the day after the midterms. Democrats are in worse shape than when President Barack Obama came into office — the number of seats they have in Congress, the number of governors, a party approval rating that’s fallen behind Republicans for the first time in recent history, enthusiasm, energy. The White House, Brazile said when she came to meet with Simas, has got to focus for the next two years on getting the party into better shape, and Obama’s the best and most effective person to get out the message.

Obama blamed for making most
of his political party lame ducks
As much Hillary Clinton anticipation as there is, two weeks later, Democrats are still reeling and anxious. Obama may have built his political career without the party — and created anti-establishment alternatives — but he’s a lame duck with a new Congress that’s been elected to oppose him. He needs Democrats. And they need him.

“The base craves his leadership,” Brazile said in an interview later that week, following a meeting of the DNC committee that’s beginning to set the rules for the next presidential nomination. “They want him in the mix, talking about what Democrats accomplished, what Democrats are fighting for, and what the president has done to make lives better.”

Nancy Pelosi was reelected minority leader. So was Harry Reid. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s term at the DNC isn’t up until 2017. Obama said repeatedly before and after the votes were counted that he wasn’t going to fire anyone because of election results. But if no one’s going to take the blame for 2014, Democrats are hoping he’ll take responsibility for getting things better for 2016.

“He may or may not be the best messenger,” said Vic Fazio, the former California congressman who was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair for the 1994 rout. “But at this point, he is still our messenger. And the first year is very important.” At least until the next presidential campaign begins in earnest, Democrats say, it’ll be up to Obama to centralize the Democratic message around something other than simply trying to paint the Republicans as extreme.

Interviews with leading party strategists turn to three main suggestions: Obama should be a much more frequent and strong voice on Democratic priorities, he should transform his West Wing political office from a midterm clearinghouse to an instrument for true party outreach, and he should reinvest his energy in the Democratic National Committee — including seeking a full-time chair who can begin the major clean-up and overhaul they need ahead of 2016.

And if doing it for the party isn’t enough for Obama, Democrats say, do it out of self-interest. “A strong party is the key to a lasting legacy,” said a senior Democratic strategist. “Whether it’s for our ideals as Democrats or it’s for his personal legacy — if we lose the White House and continue to get gutted down ballot, they will repeal the ACA and everything else we’ve fought so hard for, and all of this will be for naught.”

That should be a short-term worry for Obama too, Brazile said. “The Republicans have not retreated from the battlefield, so why should President Obama surrender?” she said. “He can’t give up, he can’t waver. All of that looks to Democrats like he doesn’t stand for much, and it’s not the truth.”

In the West Wing, they’ve been projecting optimism since the midterms. The trip to Asia was a success, they say: Obama showed with the China carbon emissions deal how big and how bold he could go without Congress. He ignited a national debate from the other side of the planet by making a few short comments and releasing a fact sheet about net neutrality. There was progress, even, on the trade deals that might make up a big chunk of the limited agenda on which the White House is hoping to find workable compromises with Republicans.

Look for more of that kind of leveraging of the president’s existing power and bully pulpit to tackle base priorities, aides say. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough initiated a process about a month before Election Day of internal conversations and outside advice, and they’re already in the initial stages of formulating a State of the Union they promise will be heavy on new proposals — which aides insist has so far not been reshaped by the Republican wins or loss of the Senate.

Behind closed doors, they’re a little more shaken.
“People are licking their wounds… trying to figure out where they go from here: ‘Can we be the phoenix rising from the ashes?’ Where are these issues where he’s going to dig in his heels and fight? Where does he compromise with Republicans, and how does he manage the politics of that?” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the White House. Through the election cycle, people in the White House would often say they felt frustrated and Obama to get out more and talk more about his message. Now, aides see two years of opportunities for a president who won’t be constrained anymore, who’ll be able to say what he wants without worrying about how it could scramble anyone else’s political considerations.
Great, Democrats say. Now make something of it. Talk about the economic progress that’s happened. Talk about how to achieve job growth to build on it.

“The best thing he can do is focus on income inequality, and talk about and propose things, and just be a fierce advocate for addressing the economic divide,” said another Democratic strategist with ties to the White House. “That will leave people after two years saying the Democratic Party really stands for something.”

“What Bush failed to do, and to some extent Bill Clinton failed to do, is to make the final two years of their presidency something big, and advocate for it and make it a defining characteristic of the party,” the strategist said. “You have to come something that defines who your party is — even if you don’t make law and you’re not successful in the effort.” The White House declined comment on its own political plans, but over at the DNC, they say they’re already feeling good about the level of Obama involvement that many people in and around the party headquarters have complained about for years.

“This president has been incredibly engaged and helpful to everything we’ve done,” said DNC communications director Mo Elleithee, citing Obama’s help on measures including retiring the DNC debt and beefing up the party data infrastructure. “He’s helped grow the party infrastructure nationally ever since his 2008 campaign, and he’s all in with us moving forward.”

In Congress, where most Democrats feel bruised and battered from what most say has been a consistently standoffish and inattentive president, even among those who speak most warmly about him, there’s a warning that he can’t count on the caucus’s unwavering support over the next two years.
“When it comes to climate, and when it comes to immigration, we’re in sort of alignment. In trade and other areas, it’s not so clear,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “It’s going to depend on the issue, the kind of coalition.” But fixing the political problems is going to be even tougher given the history over the last six years, said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.).

“We have lost our way. It’s a stormy ocean and we’re trying to find out way back to land to see where the hell we are,” Pascrell said. “But you can’t get back to land until you have a deep discussion, not just a philosophical, but a tangible, discussion about where we are as a party. It’s kind of difficult in the last two years of the presidency to do that because we have not had that kind of relationship.”

Obama, said a White House aide speaking the day before the election, is very interested in the question of his political legacy himself.“He brought a bunch of people in the process in ’08. They sat out in ’10. Then it was a real question. Then they came out again in really good numbers in ’12. Are these people going to become Democratic voters? Are we going to be able to turn the Obama voter into a Democratic voter the way Reagan was able to turn the Reagan Democrat into a Republican?” the aide said. “If you can do that, we will not just be a presidential party, we will also have success in congressional elections, but also the priorities that we care about will be the ones that shape the discussion going forward.”

Asked how that process was going so far, the aide deferred.
“We don’t know. We’ll see.”

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