Mixed Messages

If only Democrats could agree what to say, they might be able to say it.

Neither Tom Perriello nor Gerry Connolly, both first-term Democrats from Virginia, wants to talk about Charlie Rangel. “I think the people who are most obsessed with that are you,” said Connolly at a meeting with reporters hosted by the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “My constituents don’t even know who Charlie [is].” Voters don’t bring it up at town hall meetings, said Perriello, who has 20 more such meetings scheduled for August. Rangel, the New York Democrat who stepped down from the powerful Ways and Means Committee in March, has been charged with violating House ethics rules and faces a possible September trial. Republicans hope to make his case into a broader attack on Democratic leadership. Scores of Democrats have returned money Rangel donated to their campaigns. A few have asked for Rangel to resign. Still, his two House colleagues insisted it was a ginned up controversy that likely wouldn’t amount to much.

On message! Both men wanted to duck the issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did promise in 2006 that Democrats would “drain the swamp” and improve ethics in Congress, but never mind. She also needs every Democrat to avoid distractions for the next three months and talk about Democratic accomplishments and their plan for the economy. “People want jobs, people want to be able to feed their families and pay their bills right now,” said Perriello with a sigh.

That sigh encapsulated the frustrating dynamic of this election, at least as these two men see it: too many distractions. Some of the problems are self-inflicted. Rangel is a special bummer, but the larger issue is the party has a problem staying on its economic message. The media make the situation worse, according to the two men. We ignore the Democratic Party’s achievements and are too easily swayed by conservatives who use Rangel’s woes or other issues to consume valuable news cycles between now and the election.

Another problem was one the two men didn’t articulate but instead demonstrated: It’s hard to stay on message when you don’t agree on the message. Both men were in agreement about the horrors of the GOP, the benefits of health care reform, and the stimulus package. But they got into a disagreement when it came time to talk about whether to extend President Bush’s tax cuts on Americans making over $250,000 or let them expire at the end of the year as scheduled. This will be a key issue in the fall as candidates debate what can be done to improve the economy and shrink the deficit.

Connolly’s 11th District, which includes Fairfax County just across the river from Washington, is the most affluent one in the country (based on median income). He argued for keeping the tax cuts on economic and political grounds. The wealthy provide the bulk of consumer spending that drives the economy, he argued. Why take that spending out of the economy before it has recovered?

But his larger point was about the perception of a Democratic Party that wants to soak the rich. “I think Democrats need to abandon their ideology when it comes to the Bush tax cuts. … I think this is where Democrats need to reassess their views about who’s wealthy,” he said, pointing out that of the 59 wealthiest districts, Barack Obama carried 47 in 2008. “These people voted for us. They are our constituents, and yet we have … almost consistently picked on them to finance a whole plethora of wonderful ideas.”

Though the two men share the same state, their districts are very different. In Perriello’s 5th District in central Virginia, the median income ($35,700) is less than half that of the 11th District ($80,400). John McCain also won there, whereas Obama won by 15 points in Connolly’s district. Perriello favors letting the top-tier tax cuts expire, arguing that the president has done well by his wealthy supporters. “If you look at who has benefited the most since President Obama came to office, it’s been that top percent,” he said.

Some issues of this election may be too complex, and the Democratic caucus too diverse, for Democrats to boil it all down to one easy message. But the two men were in agreement over the power of Obama. They would both welcome him to their district, though Connolly was more enthusiastic than Perriello, “I need the base excited,” Connolly said. “If there’s someone who gets the base excited, it’s President Obama. President Obama is magic.” Does the White House share that view, Connolly was asked. After a long pause, he said he wasn’t sure but thought it might be getting the message. What should the administration do next? “They have to be out there night and day and stay on message,” he said. Now if everyone can just agree on the message.

Become a fan of Slate  and  John Dickerson on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.