Monday, March 16, 2009

Savvy Players Are Big Factor in Current Success of Democrats

By Stuart Rothenberg

There are more than a few reasons why Republicans are in a political hole currently and, more importantly, why the party is having a hard time getting out of it.

But we’ve all talked long enough about former President George W. Bush, the unpopular war in Iraq, the economy, the GOP’s missteps when it controlled both chambers of Congress, the damage to the Republican brand and the unique abilities and appeal of President Barack Obama. There is no need to cover that ground again.

Instead, there is one other Democratic advantage — and Republican shortcoming — that can’t be ignored: People.

Democrats simply have smarter, tougher, more cold-blooded voices in government at the moment. That hasn’t always been the case, and it’s certainly not inevitable. But right now, it’s true.

I’m not talking about the Democrats’ official leaders on Capitol Hill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). Both are skilled insiders who know their caucuses and understand politics.

Instead, I’m referring to a trio of Democrats in Washington, D.C., who epitomize the party’s current advantage — Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who until recently served in the House as the third-ranking party leader.

Republicans don’t have anyone with the smarts and debating skills of Frank, who, during a TV segment, can go from examining his hands (apparently not even listening to the discussion) to eviscerating a Republican opponent with facts and his sharp wit.

He can beat opponents over the head with facts when it suits him and simply overwhelm them rhetorically when facts are not on the Democrat’s side. He has been doing it for more than three decades, going back to his appearances on PBS’s “The Advocates.”

Nor do Republicans have equals to Schumer or Emanuel, who never stop trying to make life difficult for Republicans. Both men live and breathe politics — they were, after all, the architects of the historic 2006 Democratic sweep of the House and Senate majorities — and they are skilled in front of and behind the camera. They are constantly looking for new angles, issues to exploit and new ideas to pursue. Call them intense, ferocious or something worse, you get the picture.

The list of Democrats who understand both politics and policy and can play both the inside game and the outside game doesn’t end with those three, of course. Veterans of Capitol Hill cite other Democrats, as well, including Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.).

Just as important, these smart legislators, advocates and strategists are benefitting from the support of capable like-minded people on Capitol Hill and allies off of it — including groups pushing their agendas at the state or national levels, and sympathetic bloggers who now play a role similar to what conservative talk show hosts have for years for Republicans.

In an effort to resuscitate Democratic prospects in Texas, for example, Matt Angle formed the Lone Star Project, a federal political action committee that hammers Republicans whenever its get a chance, promoting strong local Democratic candidates and even bringing lawsuits. Angle, a former top aide to ex-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), has a few successes under his belt already, though Republicans still have the advantage in the state.

Recently, the left-of-center Center for American Progress launched a “war room” that seeks to add its weight behind the White House’s agenda.

The great irony, of course, is that Democrats have become successful, in part, because they have adopted the strategies of Republicans that they once so reviled. Everything involves confrontation.

Years ago, Democrats complained that the party had nobody who could match strategist Karl Rove or then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in sheer political calculation, or in their willingness to push — or even sometimes tear — the envelope. But now, the roles are reversed, with Republicans lacking anyone as aggressive and politically effective as Emanuel, Schumer or Frank.

It would be foolish, of course, to say that Republicans have no talent in the nation’s capital.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are no pushovers, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) can hold his own in a debate. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) are widely regarded as bright and creative up-and-comers and as able to talk strategy and tactics, as well as handle themselves well in debate.

Looking outside Washington, some observers cite governors such as Utah’s Jon Huntsman Jr. and Indiana’s Mitch Daniels as having the kind of analytical ability, political savvy and maturity to help reinvigorate the Republican Party nationally now.

And most people I’ve talked to about this acknowledge that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is one of the few Republicans with the intellectual firepower, political savvy and speaking ability to match the sharpest Democrats.

But right now, the Republicans on Capitol Hill have no match for Emanuel, Frank and Schumer, or the other talented Democrats. Taking nothing away from GOP legislators, staffers or interest groups, Democrats are simply more aggressive, better organized and more poised for the kill. It’s up to the GOP to counter that quickly.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.