By Alexander Bolton - 07/16/09 08:27 PM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) slammed the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on Thursday for running ads designed to pressure centrist Democrats into supporting the president’s healthcare plan, calling the effort a “waste of money.”
Reid’s comments sent his staff into damage control mode, as they sought to clarify his remarks, but also reflect a growing frustration among those centrists who have been reluctant to back a government-run health insurance plan at the center of President Obama’s healthcare proposal.
Reid slammed the DNC for targeting Democrats instead of Republicans or special interest groups that traditionally oppose Democratic policies.
“I think it’s a waste of money,” Reid said when asked about the ads. “Democrats running ads against Democrats?”
The campaign comes one month after a coalition of liberal groups, including ACORN, the AFL-CIO and MoveOn.org, launched a $1.1 million television ad campaign to sway centrist Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee.
And in May, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees ran radio ads criticizing Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for introducing healthcare legislation that the group claimed would tax health benefits. Wyden shot back with his own radio ad, calling the union message “not true.”
The latest round of ads are running in Maine, Arkansas, Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, Nebraska and Ohio.
The ads feature five Americans who cannot afford proper treatment for various medical problems and urge viewers to contact their senators to pass healthcare reform based on principles laid out by Obama.
The ads do not mention senators by name, nor do they mention either party, but seven of the states targeted have at least one Democratic senator and Arkansas and North Dakota are represented by two. Maine, the only state targeted without a Democratic senator, is represented by two GOP centrists.
Democratic centrists are reluctant to criticize the DNC or liberal groups on the record for fear of spurring further criticism. But privately they warn that pressure tactics could backfire.
“There is a real risk of pushback from conservative senators because they know that Reid needs 60 votes. Activists still think [sweeping healthcare reform] can get done with 50 votes,” said an aide to a Democratic senator who has faced pressure from liberal groups.
“The ads are a waste of money because the public is getting desensitized to all the noise and don’t trust anybody with enough money to run ads on healthcare reform,” said the aide in reference to the DNC ad campaign.
Reid initially did not hear the reporter say who had launched the ads, but Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the Senate Democrats’ senior political strategists, was sitting next to him and told Reid it was the DNC. Reid said he was not aware of the campaign before opining that he considered Democratic ads against fellow Democrats a waste.
An aide to Reid sought to clarify his remarks later on, saying Reid has no problem with the ads in question.
“Sen. Reid was led to believe by the question posed to him that the DNC was attacking members of his caucus,” the aide said. “In fact, the DNC is running non-specific call-to-action ads in states with both Democratic and Republican senators, an effort he has no problem with. “
A DNC source said he had no response to offer on Reid’s comment because Reid’s staff “walked back” the criticism.
Organizing for America, which funded the ad campaign and is a wing of the DNC that was formed from the grass-roots operation of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, urges senators to back an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system.
The campaign is the first significant effort by the Obama administration to use its political operation at the DNC to ratchet up pressure on Democratic centrists.
Obama seems to recognize the danger of alienating Senate Democratic centrists. During a strategy session with congressional leaders earlier this month Obama complained that liberal advocacy groups should stop attacking Democratic lawmakers, The Washington Post reported. Obama’s concern, however, was not enough to dissuade political strategists at the DNC from adding to the barrage aimed at centrists.
Reid has a history of sticking up for centrists in his caucus.
In March, he criticized liberal groups such as MoveOn.org and Americans United for Change for launching ad campaigns intended to pressure centrist Democrats to support Obama’s budget.
“I think it’s very unwise and not helpful,” Reid declared at a breakfast with reporters. “These groups should leave them alone. It’s not helpful to me. It’s not helpful to the Democratic caucus.”