By Alexander Bolton - 02/21/10 08:06 PM EST
Congressional Democrats are celebrating what they say was their best week politically since Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts on Jan. 19.
After playing defense on the economy, the stimulus and healthcare for much of the past year, Democrats went on the offensive this week.
“It’s a pretty easy case to make that there’s a lot of crocodile tears and a lot of hypocrisy,” Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, speaking of the points Democrats scored. “This gets [Democrats] more on offensive while they’ve been on the defensive.”
Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said Democrats have found a more effective line of argument the “Party of No” label they’ve tried to fix on the GOP for much of the past year.
“The Republicans complain about the stimulus, but take the money and go home and claim credit,” West said. “You can’t have your hand in the cookie jar while complaining about cookie consumption.”
West said it would more likely resonate with voters than the “Party of No” line of attack.
Democrats knew they had live ammunition when the conservative Washington Times bit on their story line the preceding week.
The Times published a 1,767-word front-page article on GOP lawmakers vying to steer funds from the economic stimulus program back to their states.
The lead example was Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) who quietly sought more than $50 million for two projects in his state despite regularly blasting Obama’s stimulus as irresponsible.
Democratic aides in Congress said they were able to break through this week because of support from President Barack Obama and the White House. Aides grumbled that these reinforcements have been lacking at key moments in the healthcare and climate change debates.
Obama kicked the strategy off on Jan. 29 when he chided Republican lawmakers who voted against the stimulus and then “have been all too happy to claim credit for Recovery Act projects and the jobs those projects have produced.”
Obama repeated the point at a town hall event in New Hampshire the following week.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs took the attack up a notch this past week when he blasted House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) for hypocrisy because Cantor requested funds for a high-speed rail project in his district despite his fervid criticism of the stimulus.
One Democratic aide said the White House support was crucial because it prompted media outlets to pay closer attention to the Democrats’ argument.
“When the president says something, it gains more attention then when a Democratic senator or congressmen says it,” said the aide. “It’s the power of the bully pulpit and we’re glad to see Obama using that.”
“When it’s congressman versus congressman, it’s perceived as just more noise,” the staffer added.
Working alongside the White House, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) posted a web video making a similar charge against Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other GOP senators.
Aides to McConnell pushed back hard by accusing the DNC of distorting the facts. They argued that Democrats unfairly painted McConnell as a supporter of stimulus funds for the Blue Grass Army Depot, a project he has long supported as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, defended himself in a post on Twitter, but it was not the type of clean shot that is usually most effective in politics.
“No contradiction to vote against reckless stimulus but if [the majority is] hell bent to spend the money anyway, make sure Texas gets fair share,” he wrote in a nuanced statement that the liberal Huffington Post pounced on.
For the first time in weeks, Republicans were clearly on the defensive.
Democratic aides working for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the Senate and House campaign committees flooded reporters with materials.
House Democratic leadership aides found and highlighted a tasty nugget to reporters: GOP.gov, the website of the House Republican caucus, posted a press release from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) taking credit for $35 million in stimulus highway money. The item was posted just above two other posts panning the stimulus program.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Friday issued a release claiming that 91 House Republicans have taken credit for economic bills they opposed. The measures included in this count encompassed the stimulus and two omnibus measures.
In a statement this week, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen said, “I call on House Republicans to stop claiming credit for policies they opposed and start working with President Obama and House Democrats to keep our economy on the road to recovery.”
“We were not only were able to make our case that the stimulus is working and saving and creating jobs, we were able to show the hypocrisy on the Republican side and prove that while we’re working to save the economy, they’re just playing politics,” said Rodell Mollineau, director of the Senate Democratic Communication Center, characterizing what he and other Democrats touted as a successful week.
Republicans aides dispute such claims, arguing that one good week will not change the public’s perception of the stimulus
“More Americans believe Elvis is still alive than believe the Democrats’ stimulus created jobs,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “I don’t think their claims have connected or are resonated.”
Steel noted that a recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that only six percent of the public thought the stimulus had already created jobs.
With the economy ailing and unemployment at 9.7 percent, independent political analysts say Republicans still have the upper hand. GOP officials who have noted that the White House predicted the stimulus would cap unemployment at 8 percent will continue hammering that point all year long.
While it’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of the new offensive, Democrats believe it can serve as a model for the rest of the year.
“I would expect to see this type of coordinated and aggressive approach on many other issues throughout the year,” said Mollineau.
Over the past few weeks, Democrats were able to create an echo chamber to amplify their criticism of Republicans’ stance on the stimulus.
The critiques of the president and congressional leaders reverberated on liberal blogs, such as ThinkProgress.org, and on liberal-leaning cable talk shows.
Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, ridiculed Republicans such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.) and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) for staging public relations events with eye-catching fake checks even though they opposed and criticized the stimulus program. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann has also ripped Republicans for hypocrisy on the stimulus.
CNN’s Rick Sanchez also ran a critical segment featuring Jindal, Gingrey and Senate hopeful Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.).
On the same program, CNN national political correspondent Jessica Yellin said: “This is a good gotcha moment in politics for Democrats to use against the Republicans.”
The message also filtered out to mainstream news outlets in battleground states.
The Kansas City Star published an Associated Press report that Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a candidate for Senate, attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a visitors’ center at a fish hatchery that received $1 million in stimulus funds.
Democratic strategists have urged the White House and Democratic leaders to take a more aggressive approach against Republicans.
“What everybody needs to do up and down the ballot is make 2010 a choice and not a referendum,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who said Democrats did not do enough to draw a contrast with Republican proposals.
Begala said Democrats should next attack the House GOP budget and make Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the ranking Republican on the Budget panel, a “very famous man.”