Obama Could Learn from Hillary and Dean

Salena Zito
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Posted: Feb 07, 2010 12:01 AM
Obama Could Learn from Hillary and Dean

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The realization that voters who live 15 minutes outside this city are completely disconnected from people who work and govern here has finally hit.

At least it is resonating with the brains who must run the campaigns to retain the largest congressional majority ever held by a political party; the jury is still out with the Obama administration.

“It’s bad. No, let me rephrase that – it’s toxic for any incumbent, especially for one that has a ‘D’ after their name,” one in-the-loop Democratic strategist admitted over coffee within the shadow of the Capitol.

He’s not predicting total defeat for Democrats in Congress and governor’s mansions. Yet if the election were held today, his client losses would outnumber victories, big-time.

“The president and the Democratic Party need a do-over moment,” he says. “But it has to be genuine. It has to be believable. People will see through anything less in a moment, and that is when we really start losing seats.”

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On the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union address, his team dispatched him on a “salt of the earth” tour (to quote The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) to reconnect with Main Street America. They also dispatched him for separate “question time” sessions with congressional Republicans and Democrats, to show he’s “listening” to everyone.

His messages have been pretty much the same: Big banks, Wall Street and Big Oil are bad; Washington’s partisan bickering must stop; Republicans are the party of “no.”

Here’s the problem with that: Obama campaigned on all of this two years ago; he had a whole year to do something about any of these issues. Eventually, voters figure out that while the rhetoric is glorious, the results are flat.

One Democrat who was able to come down from the political-elite mountain was Hillary Clinton.

In the 2008 primary, Clinton got her groove going when she relaxed, listened to and connected with voters. Unfortunately for her, that didn’t happen until the Ohio and Texas primaries, when she was too bogged down in super-delegate math and caucus losses to win the nomination.

Yet Clinton “got it” far faster than Obama has. She was able to rebound and win just about all of the final primaries and, eventually, the popular vote – but she lost the political-elite super-delegates and hard-left party activists who vote in caucuses.

In a twist of pure irony, Obama needs to pull a “Clinton” to win back voter confidence.

Democrats in Congress need to pull out Howard Dean’s old 50-state-program handbook if they want to hold their seats.

In 2006, as the Democrats’ national chairman, Dean put his plan in place to make the party competitive. He invested in party infrastructure, even in ruby-red Republican districts where Dems had no business running.

Between party workers in the field and “values messaging” that reached rural Christian voters via subtle radio ads embedded in weather, news and farm reports, Democrats picked off enough seats to pull out a congressional majority.

But no one has sent them a “values message” in a very long time. Saying “Big special-interest companies are bad and the rich should pay higher taxes” has no value; people know they never receive a paycheck from a poor person.

Saying that Washington is out of touch or partisan bickering must end have no value either. Hello? Mr. Obama, don’t you live in Washington? And bashing Republicans at every town-hall meeting is seen as partisan bickering, or at least as instigating it.

A huge disconnect exists between the Washington Beltway and America’s John Deere voters. No one can win a general election without the latter; they are the Reagan Democrats who swing elections, the independents who began pulling away from this administration last March.

“The base is very demoralized,” Dean says. “At Democracy for America, a grassroots progressive political organization I founded, activists and volunteers have no interest in federal races. They are really let down by everything that has happened in Washington in the past year.”

Instead, he says, they are focused on recruiting, training and funding progressive candidates to run for school boards, city councils, state legislatures.

“It’s still a long shot for Democrats to lose the majority,” a Republican strategist here admits. “The Republican brand still has a bad smell to it. But for Democrats to have a demoralized base while losing independents is brutal.”

Dr. Dean agrees.