What the Dems Need to Do to Win

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Both in and out of Washington, Democrats and Republicans are sounding the same tune: Democrats are well on their way to winning this fall's House elections.

"I think the chances are excellent," said Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro. The No. 2 Democrat in House, Whip Steny Hoyer, says some members of the GOP have already been coming up to him and saying they only wish he was in line to become Speaker rather than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who disagrees with Republicans on even more issues than Hoyer. In a meeting with a handful of lawmakers and the Australian Prime Minister, California Republican David Drier, one of the closest allies to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, accidentally referred to "Speaker Pelosi," leading to chuckles from both Hastert and Pelosi.

Of course, five months remain before the elections, so the political dynamics could change. But the discussion among Democratic strategists and pols now is not whether they can win, but how to maintain their lead in the polls. There's at least three things Democrats agree the party needs to do to keep that lead and win in November.

1. Have a plan, sort of

Pelosi told TIME last week, "It's not about the Republicans anymore, now [the voters] will make a judgment about us." As party leaders debate just how Democrats should present themselves as the alternative to the GOP, Pelosi has been pushing to talk more about their vision for the country and recently put out a list of initiatives Democrats would pursue were they to seize control: raising the minimum wage, cutting student loan interest rates, reducing government subsidies to oil companies and instituting so-called pay-as-you go budget principles, meaning every increase in spending would be offset by either a tax increase or a cut in some other spending program. And Democrats will put out a plan calling for increased spending on education and other domestic policy changes later this month. "If you look at the polling in the last few years, it points in the same direction," says Will Marshall, head of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. "Even though the public is losing confidence in Republicans, they’re not sure what the Democrats have to offer. Filling that vacuum is critically important."

On the biggest issue of the day, Iraq, Democrats have said little that distinguishes them from the GOP. After two months of discussion earlier this year, the party announced a platform that offered little beyond pushing for the Iraqis to make moves toward their own sovereignty, a policy the Bush administration is already pursuing. And the loudest voices in the party on Iraq have been people pushing for an accelerated pullout, such as Pelosi and Senator John Kerry, which worries some strategists who think those positions reinforce the views of many Americans that Democrats aren't as strong on security issues.

2. Don't get too giddy

Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has been calling friends in recent weeks and saying things like "I'm worried. I think expectations are too high." Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, a Florida Democrat who is working closely with Emanuel on the election effort, said she tries to keep her enthusiasm to herself. "The hope, I jam it in a little compartment in my heart," she said. "I take it out every once in a while and then I jam it back in and I get back to work."

The DCCC currently has about $20 million on hand, similar to its Republican counterpart, but the Republican National Committee has about $45 million to the DNC's $9 million. So party advisors are telling local candidates to stay on the phone constantly to raise money. They're advising them that no matter how strong their poll numbers they need to be mentally and financially prepared for August, when Democrats think Republicans will launch millions in negative ads against individual candidates.

Of course, this message isn't always getting through. Some Democrats are already campaigning for positions they would take if Democrats control Congress. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who is number three in the leadership as conference chairman, has started asking colleagues to support him in a campaign to be the whip in a Democrat congress, a job Emanuel would be a very strong contender for if Democrats won the House.

3. Learn Anger Management

As Democrats have gotten more confident, they've started bragging about all the hearings, investigations and subpoenas they will drown the Bush administration with if they take back the House. Pelosi declared one of the great things to be in the majority would be "subpoena power." Democratic House candidates are not thrilled, and party strategists say this is not a smart tactic. "I don't think it's helpful to get into the sort of scare tactics of abusing subpoena power," said Dianne Farrell, who is running for a House seat in Southern Connecticut. "The American people are not looking for a scapegoat."

Early last month, Pelosi told colleagues she would not support any effort to impeach President Bush. At the same time, John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat who has been the most enthusiastic supporter of that idea, took down a reference to impeachment from his website. Democratic strategists have advised the party to use the term "oversight," suggesting they will be a check on the GOP, rather than the more ominous "hearings."

But Democrats will have a hard time reining in everyone on this score. Senator Russ Feingold still wants to censure President Bush for his warrantless domestic surveillance program, and John Conyers wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last month that made it very clear that he still thinks impeachment could be appropriate.

Doing all these things is of course no guarantee of victory. "Rahm can run as aggressive an operation as possible and raise as much money as possible and whip candidates into shape," said one Democratic strategist, "but he can't make up the wave. Bush is the wave. These races are all about Bush."