Last year's August recess was hardly a placid respite for Congressional Democrats. With the debate over health care reform nearing a boiling point, town-hall forums across the U.S. turned into scalding showdowns, with seething voters cramming into standing-room-only crowds to volley accusations at their representatives. As House members depart for the six-week summer recess beginning Monday, Republican leaders are hinting that Democrats may opt to dodge constituents rather than endure another round of overheated public events. "Soon, 'Recovery Summer' may well be known as the Democrats' 'Run for Cover Summer,'" National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Pete Sessions wrote in a July 30 memo to GOP candidates.
His opponents have other ideas. After a jam-packed legislative session marked by the passage of controversial bills like Wall Street reform, Democrats will hit the campaign trail armed with talking points to draw distinctions between the two parties. And the Democratic leadership is predicting they will get a gentler reception this time. "The atmosphere has changed," Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says of last summer's vitriol. "I think that ran its course."
In a memo distributed as members streamed out of the sultry capital, Hoyer and other House leaders advised Democrats to "plan public events and media interactions in your district around weekly themes if they work for you." These themes portray the party as devoted to creating jobs for the middle class, preserving Social Security, protecting troops and veterans and galvanizing America's manufacturing sector. Several congressional Democrats locked in tight re-election campaigns say they plan a full slate of public events. For that matter, most have been busy already. Through mid-June members of Congress had held more than 920 town-hall meetings this year, outpacing the total for the first half of 2009, according to a Congress.org report. Democrats held some 490 of those sessions. Members who held public events over the July 4 recess reported that "there was not the hostility that they saw the year before," says Hoyer, who believes the party's efforts to fix the economy are "resonating."
"The mood is significantly better," says Representative Steve Driehaus of Ohio, a freshman Democrat who will hold a series of in-person and telephone town halls. "There's still a lot of anxiety about the economy, a lot of people feeling a lot of pain. But I don't see the same level of partisan emotion." Virginia Representative Tom Perriello, another embattled freshman, plans to convene 20 town-hall events nearly matching his frantic schedule of last August, when his 21 town halls were the most in the country. "We've done so much this year that has been misconstrued," says Perriello's spokeswoman, Jessica Barba. "The town halls are about reviewing what's been done, but also about explaining we have a plan for getting the economy back on track and protecting the middle class, and the other side has no ideas."
Not exactly. Democrats have taken pains lately to highlight some of their opponents' ideas. "It is time to define the choice America faces," House leaders wrote in their memo to members. As part of this effort, last week the Democratic National Committee unveiled a new website outlining "The Republican Tea Party Contract on America." The 10-item agenda includes privatizing or phasing out Social Security, swapping out the existing system of Medicare for a voucher system, extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and big oil and abolishing the Departments of Energy and Education. In some cases, such notions have been espoused by ultraconservative Republican candidates but have not been embraced by GOP leadership. But Democrats are betting that by binding Republicans to the Tea Party, they can peel off moderate and independent voters repelled by some of the movement's more extreme policy positions.
Pointing out the "Tea Party problem," as Democrats have put it, is part of the overarching campaign strategy: to frame the midterm elections as a fork between the policies inching the U.S. toward recovery and those that triggered the collapse. "The election is going to come down to a choice between what is the Democratic Party going to do for me and, on the other, concern about what the Republican Party might do to them," says Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat fighting to hold on to his seat in the state's Eighth Congressional District.
Amid a sluggish recovery and with the specter of Representative Charlie Rangel's September ethics trial looming Democrats realize they may stand a better chance by campaigning on this juxtaposition than on the strength of their legislative accomplishments, many of which remain deeply polarizing. "We haven't had success. We've had progress," says Hoyer. "But if you compare it to the policies of the Bush Administration that our opponents want to go back to," he says, progress may be enough to keep the Democrats in power.
With reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington