Democrats split over use of ‘party of no’


Senior strategists in the party argue the label at best has outlived its usefulness, and at worst will do nothing to win new Democratic votes in the 2010 elections.

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“The Democrats are making an enormous mistake when they say the Republicans are the party of no,” said Paul Begala, the veteran Democratic strategist who worked in President Bill Clinton’s White House.

Democrats began describing the GOP as the party of no after every House Republican voted against the $787 billion economic stimulus bill in February.

The label has stuck in press releases, e-mails and public comments from Democrats in subsequent months as Republicans voted en masse in committee or floor votes against healthcare legislation in the House and Senate backed by President Barack Obama.

The risk to the message is that polls show a public split down the middle on the stimulus and healthcare reform. It is unclear whether voters will punish or praise Republicans for saying no to Democratic efforts on those issues.

In addition, as voters turn their attention to the 2010 midterm election, they are increasingly looking to the choice they must make at the ballot box. That calls for a political message steeped in what Democrats and Republicans say they would do if they controlled Congress.

Strategists such as Begala argue the “party of no” message misses the point that Republicans do have an agenda and governing philosophy.

“I’ve hated this message of ‘party of no,’” said Begala. He says Republicans are the party of “colossal deficits and tax cuts for the wealthy,” not the party of no.

“The key here is not just whacking them because they’re not us,” said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn (who also contributes to The Hill’s Pundits Blog).

He sees value to the “no” message, but favors emphasizing that the GOP is the party of no new ideas.

Other Democrats think the label has been useful in portraying Republicans as knee-jerk opponents of Obama and are doing anything but running away from the term.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Monday took to the liberal Center for American Progress to give a speech about the House GOP leadership’s record of pushing Republicans to be the party of no.

“One of our two great parties is now an organization committed to an unprecedented level of lockstep opposition to the president: a ‘party of no’ whose political strategy is an investment in failure for our country and paralysis for its institutions,” Hoyer said, according to his prepared remarks.

Hoyer criticized the GOP for not being a “constructive minority,” stating that “even with the economy facing collapse,” Republicans put the highest value on group loyalty during the debate over the stimulus bill.

A leadership aide acknowledged that labeling Republicans as the party of no is not as strong a message as it once was, and that there are risks to the strategy.

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But the aide said the message can still be an effective political tool if refined with the message that Republicans succeed if America fails, and that Republicans are saying no because they want to protect special interests.

Some Democrats have put a greater emphasis on the “party of no” message than others.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, described the GOP as the party of no in response to last week’s jobs report, while Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Democrats’ reelection arm, used the terms in recent weeks to describe the GOP position on healthcare.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), has also used the term. But the last time the DCCC put out a press release that emphasized Republicans as the “party of no” was on June 26.

More recently, Van Hollen and the DCCC, which worked to elect Democrat Bill Owens in a New York House race over a conservative candidate, have portrayed the GOP as a party taken over by an extreme fringe. Van Hollen has blasted Republican leaders for not speaking out against conservative activists who have likened health insurance reform to terrorism and burned effigies of Democrats.

In a Nov. 18 release criticizing Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who had suggested Democrats might welcome a terrorist attack brought about by holding Sept. 11 trials in New York City because it would create jobs, Van Hollen said the GOP had been taken over by right-wing extremists.

“It’s long past time for the House Republican leadership to speak out against this disturbing pattern of increasingly extreme rhetoric from their ranks and engage in the constructive search for solutions that America’s many challenges demand,” Van Hollen said in the release.

Republicans have heavily criticized the stimulus as unemployment has skyrocketed since its passage, and in an August poll by Gallup and USA Today, 51 percent said they thought the government had spent too much on the stimulus. Thirty-eight percent said they thought the stimulus would make the economy worse in the long run, the same percentage that thought the stimulus would help the economy over the long term.

Still, perceptions on the stimulus can change. A November unemployment report that showed the economy unexpectedly lost only 11,000 jobs last month gave Democrats a new opening to argue the stimulus is having a positive effect. Future reports could have a greater impact on public perceptions of the stimulus.

On healthcare, a Nov. 30 poll by Gallup found that 51 percent of respondents would lean toward advising their congressman to vote against legislation, compared to 44 percent who advocated a vote for healthcare reform.