Message Massage

There are 100 workdays on the Senate calendar between now and October 1, when the 108th Congress hopes to get out of town and on with the business of getting itself re-elected. On the other side of the Capitol, the schedule is even lighter, with the House having settled into the grinding rhythms of a three-day workweek.

But this is an election year, and so it is not the least bit surprising that a lot of nothing is happening or going to happen on Capitol Hill during these last days. What we can expect is a series of wide-ranging, often shameless efforts on both sides to engage in activities that may help members of Congress in November -- legislation as campaign literature. There will be debates about gay marriage, abortion, the minimum wage, foreign trade, and the right to buy and bear arms.

For Democrats, who have been trying to clean up the muddle of their message since they got whacked by the GOP's "Contract With America" 10 years ago, this means that the Message Bazaar is open. There are anxious, sometimes anguished discussions all over town about the Democratic message (or lack thereof). And the tension will only increase now that the White House this week has begun its offensive against John Kerry.

Meanwhile, Hill Democrats are seeking their own version of the "Contract," hoping for a unified message that will grab voters and give them something to hold on to, something with punch, something more subtle than "We Hate That Guy, too."

To that end, House Democrats recently revealed that they are seeking Madison Avenue's help in crafting a message for November. "It's the Economy, Stupid" sounds too much like old politics. A key idea in the message will have to do with the need for change. But the task is complicated by the fact that it needs to communicate positions on a list of issues, including education, jobs, the deficit, health care, Iraq, etc., etc., etc.

"There is a missing link out there," says Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who serves as vice chair of the House Democratic caucus. "Our message needs to be crystallized, and we need to be consulting with people who know how to do that."

Clyburn is in the credibility camp: He believes the president's credibility is an issue that will hurt the incumbent's chances of re-election, and that Democrats ought to make that a focus of their message.

Senate Democrats, on the other hand, are focused on the deficit. It's polling well as an issue, and it helps Minority Leader Tom Daschle, whose re-election battle in South Dakota, against former Republican Representative John Thune, is going to be one of the toughest races in the country.

Most curiously, there is also a rearguard action on the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, which the GOP passed with much fanfare late last year. The outreach operation in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office has one staffer almost wholly dedicated to agitating on Medicare. Polls show that the more seniors find out about the Medicare prescription benefit, the less they like it, which is why Democrats are waging a campaign to spread the word about a vote they lost. It is rare indeed to see an issue live on so intensely after it has been approved by the Congress and signed by the president. Democrats crusaded against the bill, tagging it a cynical effort by Republicans to steal a long-standing Democratic issue. So why not quit after you lose?

"Not a chance, I don't think so, uh, uh!" said one senior Senate aide. "This is good for us, and it's working."

As a result, the administration has been put on the run, spending $20 million on a national advertising campaign to assure Medicare beneficiaries that the new proposal will make things better for them.

Then there are those who will not stop talking about the war in Iraq and what they view as the president's credibility gap.

Senator Ted Kennedy will go after the CIA and the White House again in a speech on Friday, March 5 before the Council of Foreign Relations. He will challenge CIA Director George Tenet, asking him to explain why he was silent during the months leading up to the war if he thought prewar intelligence was being improperly or incompletely used. Tenet will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, March 9, and may be able to use Kennedy' speech as a cheat sheet on some of the questions he will face.

With the White House more generally on the defensive, Democrats have been emboldened. We can expect to see an ever-increasing round of attacks from the Hill, but the question remains: Do those attacks constitute an attractive message for voters, and, if so, what's the tag line?

"How about 'Trust Fund Kids Can't Balance the Budget'?" cracked Kori Bernards, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's communications director.

Bernards allows that there is a "message document" out there somewhere, and the bottom-line message is, "Washington under Republican leadership is not working for ordinary Americans."

Still, all this message massaging on the Hill may not matter in the end because the only Democratic microphone that really matters belongs to John Kerry. When the White House launched its offensive against him this week, Bush adviser Karen Hughes accused Kerry of having "message clarity" problems. It's just one more reason why Kerry needs to focus his campaign.

"As long as the Kerry message is tight and resonant," mused one senior Democratic operative, "everybody else should go out and play their local politics."

Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.