House Democrats are banking on what they believe is a growing desire among voters for change and Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) ability to win the presidential debate on national security in their quest to retake the chamber this cycle.
The high-stakes gamble to rely on an electorate unhappy with Republican rule and their presumptive presidential nominee’s war credentials comes on the heels of a major loss two years ago when House Democrats saw the number of seats they need to take back the House nearly double.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a lead candidate recruiter for his party, acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that House Democrats lack the bully pulpit to carry the message in 2004, conceding that Kerry — who can appeal directly to a national audience — will have to lead the charge.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, can effectively show that Democrats can prove themselves to be as strong as, if not stronger than, Republicans on defense and security, Hoyer said.
“Democrats have got to make it clear that we are prepared to protect their country,” Hoyer said, later adding: “We need to change that perception with the American people. Kerry is going to have to convey that message.”
“We don’t have a megaphone,” added a House Democratic leadership aide. “It’s only natural we’ll be looking to Kerry to lead the charge.”
House Democrats, who must win 12 seats to retake the chamber, have been working behind the scenes for months to refine their message heading into 2004. The party was widely criticized last cycle for lacking a clear message, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has vowed that never again would the party enter an election without clearly defining itself.
But Hoyer insisted it wasn’t a lack of message by the Democrats — or the delivery by their then-leader Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) — but the fact that the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy changed the landscape and gave Republicans a lock on the 2002 election.
“The security issue became the major issue and took off the table the economy, the budget, health care, education, all of which Gephardt was articulating effectively,” Hoyer said. “It is an inappropriate criticism that Democrats didn’t have a message in 2002. We had a message, but it was trumped by a much more powerful message and that was security.”
“That’s why you see the attacks on Kerry, because he does have that credibility,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “He has good credentials on security.”
But Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said if Democrats are relying on Kerry to help them deliver gains in November, they are misguided. He said not only is Kerry too liberal to help Democrats win in key swing districts, he cannot win the security debate against President Bush, “who led the country through 9/11.”
“If Mr. Hoyer and the House Democrats are comfortable with Mr. Kerry leading their issues debate, then it’s going to be a very good year for House Republicans,” Forti said.
House Democrats, however, remain optimistic, with Hoyer saying they will continue to raise their voices on the issues of security and terrorism to demonstrate that Republicans aren’t the only party concerned about Americans’ safety. Also, he said Democrats will focus on urging Americans to compare the state of the country under two Bush administrations with that of the eight years of Clinton’s presidency.
“Our message is, compare,” Hoyer said, adding that on issues ranging from the economy to foreign relations Democrats are better than Republicans in the driver’s seat.
Beyond that, Hoyer and other Democrats argue the party message will be largely traditional — focusing on many of the same domestic themes they have touted over the past several decades of fiscal responsibility, education and a fairer tax system.
The Whip acknowledged that he and other leaders will be accountable for the outcome of the 2004 elections and whether House Democrats make headway. But Hoyer said the results will not influence whether House leaders stand again for second two-year terms.
Hoyer said he and Pelosi — both traveling the country to raise money for the party and candidates — are doing everything “we can do to put us in a position to win.”
“Yes, I feel responsible,” Hoyer said. “If we fail, we will have not succeeded. But I don’t think we’re going to fail.”
Hoyer said even with a Texas redistricting map that puts five House Democrats in peril and a major party fundraising disadvantage to the Republicans, Democratic optimism stems from a belief that Americans are feeling “a lot of angst” about the country right now.
“People are definitely eager for change,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “I think that’s why Democratic candidates are interested in running and Republican moderates like [New York Rep. Jack Quinn] aren’t running.”
Hoyer argued that this year was similar to 1994, when Americans voted in a Republican Congressional majority, and that the electorate again seems poised for a major power change. Ten years ago, the Republicans’ election strategy centered on a call for a power revolution as they ramped up charges of Democratic abuses of power and corruption.
The Minority Whip said he senses voters feel that way about the GOP leadership heading into 2004. That, coupled with a field of about 30 formidable Democratic challengers and slipping Bush poll numbers, gives hope the party can make gains this cycle, he said.
“People are angry, people want change, people are disconcerted,” Hoyer said.