Democratic candidates all but ignore their legislative successes

Reporting from Washington — As Democrats fan out across the country to campaign for reelection this month, many are surprisingly quiet about their hard-won accomplishments — the major bills they have passed under President Obama.

In an effort coordinated with the White House, congressional leaders are urging Democrats to focus less on bragging about what they have done — a landmark healthcare law, a sweeping overhaul of Wall Street regulation and other far-reaching policy changes — and more on efforts to fix the economy and on the perils of Republican control of Congress.

One year after many town hall meetings were upended by raucous anti-government protesters, congressional Democrats are trying to ensure that this summer’s debate sheds a more flattering light on their party as they navigate a bruising midterm election campaign.

To bulk up their record on job creation, Democratic leaders have gone to great lengths — even calling House members back from recess for a special session Tuesday — to pass a $26-billion bill to avert public employee layoffs.

And in an effort to turn attention to their opponents, Democrats from Obama on down have taken to warning that giving Republicans control of Congress would be akin to reelecting George W. Bush.

“The question for 2010 is: Whose side are you on?” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said to reporters Thursday. He spoke after a closed meeting with Democratic senators, where palm cards itemizing contrasts between the parties were distributed for lawmakers to carry around during the recess.

“Democrats moving us forward, while Republicans take us back,” the card says.

Obama has been reading from the same playbook, comparing Republicans to bad drivers who want to retrieve keys to a car they had driven into a ditch.

“When you get in your car, when you go forward, what do you do? You put it in ‘D,’ ” Obama said last week at a Democratic National Committee event in Atlanta. “When you want to go back, what do you? You put it in ‘R.’ “

Republicans see those attacks as an effort to divert attention from the weak economy.

“Democrats plan to spend the next month asking voters to overlook their job-killing policies by distracting them with dishonest attacks on Republican candidates,” the National Republican Congressional Committee wrote in a recent memo to House Republicans and GOP candidates.

Democratic strategists privately acknowledge that their party’s legislative record, while far-reaching and popular with party regulars, has limited political benefit in swing districts and in a stubbornly sluggish economy.

“Our candidates’ job is not to sell the accomplishments of the past but to send a message that strikes a chord,” said a senior Democratic advisor who did not want to be identified while discussing strategy. “I am not one who thinks our candidates should go out and sell healthcare reform. They have to stay focused on jobs, the economy and shaking up Washington.”

Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), campaigning for an open Senate seat, holds most of his political events at work sites to emphasize his commitment to job creation. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), running for reelection in a GOP-dominated district, uses one of his first campaign ads to highlight his opposition to the healthcare bill and his effort to “protect coal jobs” in a controversial energy bill.

Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), in a two-day campaign swing through Democratic strongholds in South Florida, barely mentioned the Democrats’ legislative record.

The focus on the economy is a nod to a political reality documented by polling in both parties. For most voters, persistent bad employment news trumps perceived or anticipated benefits of Obama’s healthcare bill and other initiatives.

With the House and Senate adjourned until after Labor Day, the White House and congressional Democratic leaders have coordinated their summertime message and strategy in part to avoid the imbroglio that marked last year’s August recess, which laid bare the political risks of the healthcare debate that was underway.

Many Democrats’ town hall meetings were disrupted by angry conservatives criticizing the legislation — a spectacle that riveted cable news television and amounted to the public relations debut of the “tea party” movement, which portrayed the healthcare bill as the epitome of big-government excess.

This year, town hall meetings are likely to be more low key, in part because many Democrats are seeking alternative venues such as teleconference town hall meetings that are easier to control.

But conservatives are also finding it harder to galvanize people around issues rather than candidates now that healthcare is receding in prominence.

“It’s just a little quieter because there isn’t an imminent bill to focus on,” said Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has helped fund and organize tea party protests.

That’s fine with Menendez, who is doing all he can to make sure that voters view the election as a choice between political parties, not a referendum on “whether you like or don’t like what we did.”

“In everything we do, we have to drive that contrast,” he said as the Senate wrapped up its legislative business and disbanded Thursday for the August recess.