House Dems vow to improve messaging

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — House Democrats kicked off their annual retreat here with a vow to improve the flawed messaging that contributed to the loss of their majority last fall.

The down-sized Democratic Caucus is meeting for three days at the glitzy Hyatt Regency resort on the shores of the Chesapeake, with the goal of figuring out what went wrong in 2010 and how the party can position itself on policy and politics for the next two years.

President Obama and Vice President Biden will be in Cambridge on Friday to address Democratic lawmakers, who will also hear from economists, message gurus and current and former colleagues. More than a half dozen panels will be devoted or related to messaging, underscoring the importance of boosting the party’s communications with the public.

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Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) said Democrats would emerge from the retreat “renewed and invigorated” and with a chief focus on job creation. Yet as with a series of closed-door meetings after the election, party leaders trumpeted their gains in the 111th Congress but acknowledged the need to examine how House Democrats managed to lose 63 seats in 2010.

“We never stopped to ... campaign about what we did,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the caucus vice chairman, told reporters in an opening press conference. He said he told the former Speaker, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), that in retrospect, the party needed to better promote its accomplishments after the passage of the contentious healthcare law last March.

“I said Madam Speaker, the problem with Democrats is we never give the public the chance to savor our victories,” Becerra said, as Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant leader, nodded in agreement. “What we didn’t do was take the time to do tap-dances about what we had just done, but we did the work of the people.”

“Too bad we didn’t message it better,” he added.

In the retreat’s first panel, lawmakers heard a presentation on jobs and the economy from economist Mark Zandi, Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who frequently briefs House Democrats.

Becerra said Zandi and Boushey told them to expect “some pretty substantial job growth” over the next several months but that even if growth matched the pace of the 1990s boom, it would take until 2016 or 2017 to bring the unemployment rate down to 5 percent.

Democrats also heard presentations from three members who survived difficult re-elections, Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa), Rick Larsen (Wash.) and Sanford Bishop (Ga.), along who one former member who lost in November, Rep. Glenn Nye (Va.).

Other presenters include the pollster Mark Mellman, former White House communications director Anita Dunn, and the marketing expert Roy Spence. Top Capitol security officials, including the House sergeant-at-arms, will also hold a briefing for lawmakers’ spouses following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.);

Biden will deliver a speech on foreign policy Friday afternoon, and Obama will attend the caucus’s dinner that night. Aides said Obama would not deliver a traditional speech but would instead interact more directly and personally with lawmakers, following on what Larson described as a “member-centric” retreat.

The format could give Obama a better opportunity to bond with lawmakers who remain alienated with the White House following well-publicized disagreements over the tax cut deal Obama negotiated with Republicans in December.

This post was updated at 8:06 a.m. on Jan. 21 to reflect a clarification from Rep. Becerra's office.