WASHINGTON -- Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has a vision for this year's congressional midterm elections. Instead of the apocalyptic scenario of Democrats losing control of the Senate and cementing their minority status in the House, Schumer said he thinks the party can do just fine.
The theme Democrats must emphasize, he told a small group of reporters gathered around a table on Thursday afternoon, is "a fair shot."
"Why?" asked Schumer, teasing the grand reveal. "First, a fair shot symbolizes to most Americans what they want. They don’t want to be just put on a pedestal. They want an opportunity. It has an edge because it indicates you are really not getting a fair shot now. And many of our people will say: 'Give everyone a fair shot. Not just a few, not just the wealthy, etc.' ... It is optimistic. It is positive as opposed to negative. And it fits into every theme we have and we hope to use it and repeat it."
Repetition is a major ingredient in the Schumer playbook. It’s a discipline that he believes the Republican Party has mastered. And so, the New York Democrat said he has gotten approval from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to "spend a good amount of time on this agenda" -– which includes a minimum wage hike, pay fairness, protecting Medicare, and combating income inequality. He's also consulted with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to ensure that the endangered members in Red States are comfortable.
"I will say that I think this agenda, if we do it right, will trump Obamacare as the number one issue, come November," Schumer said. "If we do it right."
But if the idea for Democrats is to campaign on giving people a fair shot, a natural question arises: Why haven't they gotten that already? After all, President Barack Obama has been in the Oval Office for more than five years, and Reid has been running the Senate since 2006. Is there not any room, momentum or requirement for the party to run on legislative accomplishments?
"The economy is getting a little better," Schumer replied when asked. "But when middle-class incomes are declining, I don’t think you run on the past."
The debate over how much Democrats can or should "run on the past" has been happening in earnest since 2010. Back then, the context was gloomier. The economic recovery was just taking hold, the health care law had passed under the most acrimonious circumstances, and tea party fervor had captivated the political press. In dire terms, strategists warned Democratic lawmakers to avoid talking about an improving economy.
"The hardest thing to do in all of political communications is how do you deal with a bad but somewhat improving economy," longtime strategist James Carville said at a May 2010 Christian Science Monitor breakfast. "And the skill, or the way to thread the needle in saying things are getting better when people don't feel like they are getting better."
The White House ultimately settled on a more retrospective message. The president, emphasizing the horrific mess he inherited while stressing that progress was being made, spoke often about a proverbial car that Republicans had driven into the ditch.
"Now they want the keys back. No!" Obama said at various campaign stops. "You can't drive. We don't want to have to go back into the ditch. We just got the car out."
When the election results came in, Carville and his longtime colleague, pollster Stan Greenberg, indulged themselves in a told-you-so eggs and sausage breakfast with reporters, once more sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
Two years later, the same debate confronted the president and the emphasis was applied differently. Though they had used the phrase in 2010, the framing of the election as "a choice, not a referendum" was used ad nauseam in 2012. Everything was forward-looking, even after three-plus years in office.
"I mean, the one-word slogan of the campaign was 'forward,'" said Ben LaBolt, press secretary on the 2012 Obama campaign. "President Clinton had said that winning campaigns are about the future and that was particularly true in that presidential campaign."
Now, two years later, the choice once again confronts Democrats. Only in this election, it will be nearly six years since the president took office, making it that much harder to shift attention to future choices. Not everyone thinks the decision is easy. In a midterm election, when Democratic turnout poses a huge hurdle for the party, not trumpeting accomplishments risks depressing the base.
Still, strategists said Schumer's proposal is the better option. In a phone interview, Greenberg said he agrees fully with the assessment that there is little upside to running on the past. The longtime pollster, who was in the Clinton White House during the 1994 Republican wave, said he has new data (which he is compiling with NPR) on whether Democrats could pitch an improving economy to voters.
"I wouldn't mention the recovery at all," Greenberg said of the results. "I think the conclusion is that Senator Schumer is right."
If Democrats gloss over the record of the past few years, Republicans will naturally fill the void. The millions spent already by outside groups to highlight the impact of the Affordable Care Act are a preview of what's likely to come.
"People need to be able to trust their elected officials, but sadly those controlling Washington for the last five years have not earned the trust. Voters feel lied to, they feel betrayed, and they feel that the government isn't competent or capable enough to operate without causing more harm than good," said Brad Dayspring, the top spokesman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Voters care about issues that affect their lives, their families, and their communities -- like losing their health care plans after being promised otherwise, the lack of good jobs, and the feeling that Washington is completely incompetent and out of touch -- all results that Democratic senators and candidates own."
But Greenberg doesn't seem exceedingly nervous about not engaging on a debate over the past. If anything, he said, he sees potential dangers there for the GOP. Voters, he argued, largely associate Congress with Republicans and they certainly associate congressional ineptitude with contributing to the nation's economic ills.
"It's not an elephant in the room," Greenberg said. "The crisis was like another age. The recession began nearly a decade ago. This is not about the crash or the recovery. If you ask them what's happening in terms of holding the economy back, they think it is overwhelmingly dysfunction and gridlock."
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