Democrats risking their majority in Congress with political infighting

Democrats are in danger of losing their grip on the majority in Congress if they don’t show more leadership and coordinate better, according to former aides and restive party strategists.

Those interviewed say the White House and congressional leaders must settle internal disputes and focus on Republicans. Otherwise, they could face landslide losses during this year’s midterm elections.

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Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, is not pointing a finger at party leadership. But he said the political danger Democrats face is as grave as it was in 1994, when they lost their majorities in the House and Senate. Among lawmakers, the blame is being tossed in many directions. House Democrats point at President Barack Obama and the Senate. Senate Democrats point at each other, and back at the House.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) even took what many interpreted as a rare public dig at Obama.

With control of both chambers and the White House, Democrats have had few significant victories despite an ambitious agenda. At the same time, the public sees a troubled economy that is not getting better and an even deeper partisanship in Washington after a promise of change in the last election cycle.

Steve Elmendorf, who served as senior aide to former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.), said Democrats must cease the public fighting if they hope to keep their hands on the majority.

“If Democrats want to succeed in November, they have to get rid of their divisions and realize their success depends on the president’s success,” Elmendorf said.

“It’s incumbent on the White House and the Democratic leadership that they come back from this recess with a plan and strategy and communicate it to the members,” he added. “The worst possible outcome is if the White House and the Senate and the House appear to be on different strategies, which has been part of the problem over the last couple of months.”

Eric Hauser, a Democratic strategist who spent 10 years on Capitol Hill working for various bosses, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), said it is too late for Democrats to try to run away from Obama’s agenda.

“You can’t in the late winter start saying, “I’m not an Obama Democrat.’ There’s nowhere else to go,” he said.

Hauser also said Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) haven’t measured up to former Democratic leaders, such as Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.) and Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell (Maine).

“Pelosi and Reid are good legislators, but not leaders like George Mitchell and Tip O’Neill,” he said.

But Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network and a former candidate for Democratic National Committee chairman, argued Democrats are still well-positioned compared to Republicans for the upcoming election because they have tried to address the nation’s major problems, even if they’ve fallen short.

“They’re frustrated but they need to look inward,” he said, calling for better communication among Democratic leaders. “They have to find a way to work more effectively to do the people’s business. There’s going to have to be much tighter coordination on major legislation among the White House, Senate and House.”

Each new political setback, such as Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) win in Massachusetts and the announced retirements of Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), reminds Democrats of their tenuous grip on power and fuels anxiety.

The good news for Democrats, Begala said, is the special election in Massachusetts has alerted them to a possible catastrophe. The bad news, however, is the economy is much worse today than it was in the early 1990s.

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“What they need to do is bring a laser-like focus to the economy and jobs,” said Begala. “The reason things are bad for Democrats is that they’re bad for America. We have 10 percent unemployment.”

Begala said Democrats suffered political damage in 2009 because they unveiled ambitious policy proposals while Republicans focused on criticizing those ideas instead of offering competing ideas.

“What everybody needs to do up and down the ballot is make 2010 a choice and not a referendum,” he said.

Obama appears to have taken this advice from Begala and other strategists. His recent televised question-and-answer session with House Republicans was designed to contrast Democratic and Republican policy ideas.

Democratic lawmakers have grown more frustrated with each other in recent months as they have found themselves under an unremitting barrage of conservative criticism.

“After losses and unexpected retirements and the sense that legislation that once seemed bound to get enacted might not pass, you’re going to get a certain amount of cannibalism,” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers who recently served as a fellow in Reid’s office. “Blame not only gets directed at the opposition party, but it becomes a family quarrel as well.”

House Democrats have complained about the failure of Senate Democrats to act on much of the legislation sent to the upper chamber.

Senate Democrats have faulted their colleagues in the House for having unrealistic expectations about what can become law.

House Democrats are angry at White House strategists for asking them to cast tough political votes on major legislation such as healthcare reform and the climate change bill and then not doing more to push it through the Senate.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have clashed among themselves. Liberals have blamed centrists for watering down healthcare legislation and holding out for extravagant side deals.

Centrists have criticized their liberal colleagues for championing proposals, such as the health insurance public option, that had little visibility in Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

At a Senate Democratic retreat two weeks ago, lawmakers vented their frustration with administration officials for not having a clear plan for passing healthcare reform. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) faulted senior White House political strategist David Axelrod for letting Obama lose the public argument over the need for reform.

Pelosi has let her frustration show with Obama’s tepid enthusiasm for the liberal agenda since entering office.

“There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail,” she quipped when asked about Obama’s changed stance about televising legislative negotiations on C-SPAN.

House Democratic Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) derided the Senate as a “House of Lords.”

And centrist Democratic senators have faulted White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for not reaching out to more Republicans to pass healthcare reform.

But Begala said the internal fighting is not nearly as severe as it was in the mid-’90s, after Democrats lost control of Congress.

“I’ve seen it a lot worse, I don’t think there’s a circular firing squad,” he said.