CORRECTION: The original version of this column gave the incorrect campaign that Stacie Paxton worked on in 2004. She worked on John Kerry's campaign.
After a difficult summer of political and legislative setbacks that has the White House and congressional Democrats on their heels, the party would be wise to remember Rahm Emanuel’s axiom: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Make no mistake, Democrats’ political fortunes right now are in a state of crisis, and it’s a good time to remember the former White House chief of staff’s advice. The party has just lost a special election in heavily Democratic New York City, in a manner that suggests one of their key voting blocs, Jewish voters, may be ready to bolt to the GOP. The Democratic National Committee was outraised in August by its Republican counterpart, even with the help of mega-bashes thrown to honor Obama’s 50th birthday. And the president's approval ratings are sinking to new lows, both nationally and in key states like California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
By themselves, none of those data points suggest a party in peril. With the election 14 months away, Obama's approval rating has time to rebound. A few million dollars in an election that will cost billions are insignificant. And special elections are odd beasts that serve as unreliable indicators of the national mood. But put them together and the outlook gets downright scary.
How can the White House turn things around? Democratic strategists from across the country offer a range of suggestions: Pick a fight. Drive a coherent, consistent message. Bring in a new team. And even play more golf. Here are eight, sometimes contradictory suggestions the White House might want to consider as it tries to rebuild a damaged brand:
Pick a fight. Obama’s first two and a half years in office have shown his instinct for pragmatism. He has offered compromises and negotiations on every major item on his agenda. But he rarely finds a willing negotiating partner, to hear Democrats’ spin. (Republicans would say Obama expects them to acquiesce to his opening position rather than truly hammering out a deal.)
Some Democrats believe Obama must eschew his instinct to sit down with Republican House Speaker John Boehner and instead take a clear stand in opposition to the GOP agenda. “Pick one fight with Republicans and don’t back down,” said Nathan Daschle, the former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s not just for your base, it’s for all voters who want a president who believes in principle. It’s a balancing act. There is a time for compromise and there is a time to fight. Show us you know the difference."
The jobs bill is a good start, some Democrats say. In introducing the bill last week, Obama displayed an aggressive tone with Congress that he hasn’t in the past, something Democrats say affords him an opportunity to draw a contrast with Republicans. The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll released this week shows overwhelming majorities favor elements of Obama’s jobs plan, while a slim plurality favor his overall approach over the Republican approach.
“The substance of the president’s plan is more popular than the [Republican] alternative, and what people want now is for their leaders to focus relentlessly on the economic challenge confronting the nation,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic media consultant. “He should stay on the road and keep the same appropriately aggressive tone he displayed in his address to Congress.”
Make a deal. Running against a do-nothing Congress can only get Obama so far. At some point, Obama has to show he has actually taken positive steps toward fixing the economy, whether or not the results are there. Arguing that he’s being hamstrung by an obstructionist Congress could just demonstrate to voters that the incumbent is ineffectual. The best defense, some Democrats contend, is to pass a bill -- any bill -- that Obama can point to on the campaign trail.
“The president needs to pass his jobs package demonstrating to America that he can get something done. This starts by coming up with a real pay-for that is not a repackaging of tax increases that the House already rejected,” said one senior Democratic strategist, who asked that his name be withheld. “Congress may be an obstacle, but running against a do-nothing Congress will not be enough. Americans are hurting and they want results.”
When reelecting a president, a voter’s decision is usually a two-step process: Does the incumbent deserve reelection, and if not, is there a viable alternative? Democrats hope to make the case that the eventual Republican nominee is not a viable alternative. But getting a result on the jobs plan would give Obama’s campaign a chance to answer the first question -- that he deserves reelection -- in a positive way.