D vs. D

What’s behind House Democrats’ complaints about the Obama White House.

President Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama 

Not since Michael Jackson have we seen so much backward walking as we saw among Democrats this week in Washington. First White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had to back off his claim that Republicans could retake the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues were furious at Gibbs and complained it was indicative of a general White House indifference to their dire political situation. But by Thursday, to quell the intraparty sniping that had broken into the open, Pelosi went out of her way to praise the president and the White House, saying they’ve done everything and more to help House members.

Looking back on the week, one Democratic operative said one of its lessons was that motivating the base is an inexact science. Indeed, when you’re trying to raise money, something like the theory of Schrodinger’s cat comes into play: The threat of defeat (whether just in your race or a GOP takeover of the House) has to be alive enough to motivate Democrats to give, but not so alive that people will get discouraged or that your opponents will find hope.

The White House has a different view of what motivates the base. It thinks people should be scared into voting for Democrats by the prospect of a Republican House. Pelosi and her team think that merely saying the House is in jeopardy lowers enthusiasm among the party stalwarts. This is an age-old tension.

Gibbs merely stated the obvious, that a GOP takeover is a possibility (Gibbs never said it was going to happen). He never backed off that claim because he was merely articulating the underlying message behind the president’s political strategy of the last two months. But boy, did he ever motivate congressional Democrats. They bashed him behind closed doors and to White House aides. At the same time, their anger was about more than just Gibbs. Here are a few of the simmering tensions that have come up in my conversations this week:

  • There is existing tension between the House and the Senate. Some House members believe Senate candidates get more attention from the White House. They’re upset because they feel like the Senate always gets preferential treatment. It’s not just that House Democrats had to take a tough vote to support cap-and-trade legislation without the Senate following through. There are lots of bills the Senate hasn’t picked up, and every time the House Democrats want to do anything, they have to pare back their ambitions because their Senate counterparts need to get 60 votes to do anything. They’re also irritated Obama didn’t whip the Senate Democrats into line during the drawn-out health care process.
  • The Democratic coalition is so big that tension in a bad election year is inevitable. One particular sore spot is immigration. Blue Dog Democrats don’t want the administration to push the issue or fight the Arizona law. The Hispanic caucus and some liberal Democrats do.
  • Pelosi gets an earful. Every time the White House does something even one member hates, he or she feels free to complain to Nancy Pelosi. This means she spends all day hearing about how the White House is ignoring one constituency or another. According to some Hill Democrats, her strong reaction to the Gibbs remarks was in part about showing her constituents that she is taking them seriously.
  • The White House can never do enough. In a tough election year, there are a greater number of Democrats with needs, and those needs are more acute. There just isn’t enough time for the president to raise enough money and hold enough events to satisfy all of the nervous Democrats while simultaneously not doing so much that conservative Democrats have to spend all their time answering for his actions. In the back-and–forth, the White House penned a memo outlining all the work administration officials had done on behalf of Democratic candidates which found its way into Politico.
  • Fears about Obama focusing too much on 2012. For months, Democrats have criticized the president for not being tough enough on Republicans. They worry that he and his aides are trying to maintain his post-partisan reputation in order to protect his brand for the re-election rather than sacrificing for this year’s contests.
  • It’s a bad year. You’ve heard this before, but it’s the template that overlays everything. Only once since FDR has a president’s party picked up seats in the midterm elections. Democrats won the last two cycles, and there are a lot of Democrats in unfriendly GOP territory. The economy is bad, and the other party seems more motivated.

After a few days proving that Democrats still like to air their dirty laundry in public, by Thursday Democrats were back on the same page. The Democratic National Committee sent around a memo to Democrats highlighting the good news in recent polls. The short take: Obama is more popular than Bush or Clinton before they lost big elections in 1994 and 2006. Republicans are still less popular than the Democrats in Congress or the president.

The data leave out a few facts, such as that Republicans are enthusiastic and that key voting blocs who are likely to vote are very unhappy with the president. Still, by the end of the week, Democrats had a new achievement to boast about, the passage of financial regulatory reform. GOP leaders immediately vowed to repeal the law if they came into power. Democrats gleefully seized on the claim as one more reason voters can’t allow the Republican Party to win control of the House in November. Not that anyone was willing to admit that might possibly even happen. That’s how this whole business got started.

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