House Republicans have gone home for their August recess armed with a memo mocking Democrats for billing this season as "Recovery Summer." A better name, campaign committee chairman Pete Sessions wrote, might be "Run for Cover Summer." Democrats "have their backs to the wall," he said, because of their unpopular "big-government agenda."
There is plenty of fodder for Republicans' "big is bad" narrative, given the huge stimulus, health care and financial regulation laws enacted in the last 18 months over their near-solid opposition. The GOP story line is simple and thus far effective: Big government, big spending and big deficits = time for big change.
Democrats have made it easy for the rival party to exploit the new laws' jumbo page counts and price tags (never mind that some of them pay for themselves and the health law is expected to reduce the deficit). "What we have tended to do is do omnibus bills right before we leave on vacation, and the only thing that people see is the size of it," said Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.).
If the election becomes a referendum on large bills, that's "a losing strategy," one Democratic insider told me. The smart course for Democrats is to get out there this month and play ferocious -- if belated -- offense. They should banish words like "stimulus" and even "health reform" from their campaign-trail vocabularies. The way to aggressively counter the "big" narrative is to highlight bite-sized policies and projects contained within the new laws. Polls show the public likes many of them. If the focus is on the trees, maybe nervous voters will develop a more benign view of the forest.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, told me that is the plan. "Our Republican colleagues don't want to talk about the very popular components of these bills," he said. "They would prefer to dismiss them as big bills of hundreds of pages. We are going to talk about the ground-level impact of these decisions and actions."
That includes, he said, asking Republicans which specific components of the big bills they would repeal. (Would they get rid of consumer protections against mortgage companies in the financial reform law? Would they allow insurance companies to deny coverage to kids with pre-existing conditions?) It also includes calling out Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill but take credit for the projects it financed. "They have been shameless about showing up at events that would not exist if they'd had their way," Van Hollen said.
An extensive memo sent home with House Democrats suggests multiple ways to showcase specific portions of the huge new laws. For instance, instead of talking about a 10-year, trillion-dollar health care overhaul, candidates are told to promote its patients' bill of rights -- "critical new protections for patients" -- such as the right to appeal insurance company decisions and no more annual or lifetime caps on coverage.
Instead of talking generally about student loan reform that passed inside a giant-sized health "reconciliation bill," they are encouraged to tell voters about increases in Pell grants for needy students, lower interest rates and more affordable repayment schedules (all made possible, not so incidentally, by savings from the reform).
As for the stimulus bill, or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the idea is for Democrats to stress the local benefits without getting into a defense of the entire $787 billion package. Tour a water system rebuilt with recovery money, the memo suggests. Hold a roundtable with highway officials, meet the press at a public transit facility, talk about energy efficiency incentives while visiting a Lowe's or Home Depot with local contractors. Tour a renovated or crumbling local school, do a press event with teachers, visit a community health center, highlight new information technology at a hospital, talk to local businesses about new broadband expansions. All of this -- yes all of it -- brought to you by the recovery act.
The recovery act is the least popular of the three laws and probably the riskiest to promote. There are at least three reasons for that. One, it was deliberately designed as deficit spending to replace some of the money that businesses and consumers were not spending in the recession. Two, some of its thousands of projects are bound to be attacked (as Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn did Tuesday). And three, it did not keep unemployment to 8 percent as the Obama administration once projected; the jobless rate is over 14 percent in some states and the national rate for July is projected to be 9.6 percent.
"It's hard to make the argument that things would have been worse without it. It's very hard to win political points with that kind of argument, even though in fact it may be true," freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), part of his party's messaging team, said at a recent breakfast sponsored by Third Way, a liberal think tank.
Even so, Connolly said, "one sometimes wants to weep" at the lost opportunities to promote the package. "Who remembers that one-third of the stimulus was a tax cut? Even we stopped talking about it and so we lost the value of that," he said. Still, he said people in his district are "open to the argument that the stimulus has brought good things to us," like money to complete a county parkway and retain 800 teaching positions that would have been lost.
Perriello was an early adopter of the "all stimulus is local" approach. About a month ago he made a TV ad that shows him stepping in manure (while talking about new jobs for dairy farms), covered in blowing dirt (turning methane waste into clean energy), getting hit in the head by branches (new park trails), on the floor with wires (broadband access for 120 public schools), spilling coffee in a lurching police car (protecting jobs in law enforcement), and dodging cascades of dirt and dust (rebuilding bridges and weatherizing homes). The funny spot is packed with information and never mentions the word "stimulus."
There is also a larger story to tell about the stimulus package -- its Race to the Top grants that have spurred education innovations all over the country, its grants and loans for advanced battery technology that will swell the U.S. global manufacturing share from 2 percent to 40 percent in 2012. These are, in Connolly's phrase, gifts that keep on giving.
None of this will quiet critics like McCain and Coburn, who unveiled an annotated list of 100 stimulus projects they contend are "wasteful, mismanaged, and overall unsuccessful in creating jobs." (The White House called it an inaccurate "hit job.") Nor will showcasing local stimulus spending guarantee victory to anyone. Perriello, who prevailed by only 727 votes in 2008, trailed his Republican challenger by 23 points in a poll last month -- three weeks after he launched his ad on jobs.
Which brings us to the overarching case on the Democrats' side. It's necessary to stress the local, personal benefits of the big bills, Van Hollen said, but it's not sufficient in and of itself. "We have to drive the contrast. This election has to be a choice," he said. "We have to ask what are the other guys proposing, what do they stand for. When people find out it's nothing more than the Bush economic agenda on steroids, they don't want to go there."
As Connolly noted, Democrats have not engaged in a sustained sales pitch about what they've accomplished over the past 18 months. Van Hollen says they have been busy governing. I'm not sure that's a valid reason, but in any case, that phase is pretty much ended with the news that Van Hollen's committee has bought $28 million in TV time in 40 congressional districts. Prepare to hear a lot about how George W. Bush's economic policies drove us into a ditch, and how Barack Obama's have given you a tax cut and fixed that school or bridge down the road. In short, closing arguments in the case that Democrats should have been making all along.
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