With the war in Iraq winding down, House Democrats headed into the spring recess this week eager to turn voters’ attention to domestic topics by seeking to contrast the Bush administration’s success abroad with what they claim are its failures at home.
Republicans, meanwhile, made it clear they will try to protect the president’s domestic flank by offering a “unified” message stressing that the “Republican economic plan will create 1.4 million jobs,” according to a memo distributed by the House Republican Conference.
Democrats appeared unintimidated by the president’s wartime popularity, drawing parallels to the first President Bush’s Gulf War poll numbers and claiming that it would be an abdication of their responsibility not to offer strong criticism of the White House’s domestic programs.
However, senior Democratic lawmakers were uncertain if voters will be prepared for such an abrupt change of subject and emphasized that they would let their constituents decide what issues are uppermost in their minds.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that Democrats plan to focus on “what we call around-the-dinner-table issues, like jobs and access to affordable healthcare. Those kinds of issues dominate concerns of the American people and will dominate the debate when we go home.”
“But,” she added, “they are the bosses, and we talk about what they want to talk about.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was more optimistic that the end of the war would mean that Democrats could reassert some authority in shaping the national debate.
Hoyer singled out the media for failing to cover the Democrats’ longstanding criticism of the White House’s handling of the economy, especially the recently passed budget. “We’ve been talking about this, but you guys haven’t covered it,” Hoyer said, noting that the public has also been preoccupied with Iraq.
But although Democrats appeared intent on shifting the discussion back to domestic topics, there was less agreement about what those specific domestic issues should be.
Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said, “We are not asking members to have a fine-tuned message at this particular point.”
He added, “In terms of fine-tuning, we are looking at late fall.”
Still, Republicans are clearly concerned about their party’s perceived weakness on economic issues. An internal GOP poll showed that the economy is the No. 1 concern among voters.
The GOP Conference chairwoman, Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), sent a three-page memo to her colleagues on the GOP’s communications strategy, along with a recess briefing book.
The memo stressed that “2002 is different from 1991,” and urged members to “focus on jobs … shape the economic debate — every debate — as a Republicans effort to create 1.4 million jobs.”
The memo repeated that assertion, and added a mantra: “Remember — The Republican Economic Plan will create 1.4 million jobs.”
Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the Republican message would be very specific. “We are going to talk about three things: national security, homeland security and jobs,” Reynolds said.
The House Republican strategy is part of a “collaborative effort” with the White House, said GOP Conference spokesman Greg Chris. Yesterday, the president gave a Rose Garden speech on how his jobs and growth plan will invigorate the economy.
However, Democrats are determined to draw a clear distinction between the president’s success in Iraq and his domestic record.
Hoyer, along with conservative Blue Dog Democrats, said he sees little difficulty in coupling their support for the president’s war on terrorism with harsh criticism of the White House’s tax and budget policies.
“I am bursting with pride for what we have accomplished,” said Hoyer. “We lit the lamp of liberty, but we have a responsibility to address the domestic agenda as well as that of national security.”
Other more liberal Democrats argued that the military’s victory in Iraq casts the president’s domestic agenda in stark relief.
“If universal healthcare is good enough for the Iraqi people, shouldn’t it be good enough for the American people?” asked Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
He continued: “If funding election reform in Iraq is a priority, shouldn’t we fully fund election reform in America?”