The battle for public opinion: GOP fears it's losing Frist v. Reid
Thursday, April 14 @ 09:54:20 EDT
By Alexander Bolton, The Hill
Senate Republican leaders were due to meet last night amid rising concern that they are being beaten on the "nuclear option" by Sen. Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) public-relations war room.
The GOP's talks follow a meeting last week in which aides warned Bob Stevenson, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's (R-Tenn.) communications director, that something needs to be done to win back lost ground, a participant said.
"I think there's a realization that this particular [Democratic] effort has to be countered and they're in full-scale attack mode," a GOP aide said, adding, "I think that people know that we've got a serious problem here.
"There's been a lot of talk. Advice has been solicited from me and others. I've been told that a plan will be submitted tonight. It will be tweaked."
Soon after becoming leader, Reid hired several communication aides and created a rapid-response team akin to the one Bill Clinton pioneered during his triumphant 1992 presidential campaign.
The team is headed by Jim Manley, whom Reid hired in December from the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Stephanie Cutter, who was campaign spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) presidential campaign, joined Reid's team last week to coordinate outside liberal groups and Senate Democratic policy and communications staff in the fight over the nuclear option. Reid's war room currently employs eight staff members and is part of a nearly 20-person communications team.
Stevenson said last week's GOP meeting was "a bull session" with "people I've talked to before."
They wanted to "focus on the agenda and what our strategy is," he said, adding that concerns about being outperformed by Reid's team were "not necessarily" voiced.
He did not say whether Republicans would establish their own such team, noting that "having a war room inside the Capitol is unprecedented." Nevertheless, he indicated that more aides would be drafted to the fight over the nuclear option.
"We'll promote whatever resources we need," he said.
Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Frist, said her boss, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Senate Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Conference Vice Chairman Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Senate President Pro Tempore Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) were scheduled to attend last night's dinner-cum-strategy session. Call said she did not know where the meeting would take place.
Another GOP aide said: "There's a general sense in the rank and file that we are a little in the hole and that Democrats have been more aggressive on messaging, that we've kind of gone dark. Democrats have gotten a head start and defined the issue ahead of us."
At a closed-door luncheon Tuesday, members of the Democratic caucus were presented a stack of more than 260 press editorials from 41 states and the District of Columbia arguing against changing Senate rules to prohibit judicial filibusters. That's quite a change from a year and a half ago, when many editorial boards criticized Democrats for blocking confirmation votes on President Bush's judicial nominees.
The turnaround has flummoxed Senate Republicans and conservatives. They say it is incredible that Democrats who have "undone 200-plus years of precedent" by filibustering nominees have managed to portray Republicans as "overreaching." Republicans say eliminating the filibuster of nominees would merely restore Senate tradition.
"They turned it around," the aide said, and "one can suggest that it's because of our lack of organized countermessaging."
A few GOP senators said that when they returned to their states they heard more talk from their constituents about the nuclear option than Social Security.
Sen. Trent Lottt (R-Miss.), one of a group of Senate conservatives that first began pushing the nuclear option -- which Republicans prefer to call the constitutional option -- said he has urged Frist to set up his own war room.
"We need full-time people working on this," said Lott.
But several GOP aides have been critical of the idea, arguing that it is akin to running a political campaign with taxpayer money.
Frist, who is apparently running for the presidency in 2008 and will inevitably be judged partly on his ability to win on Bush's judicial nominees, acknowledged Tuesday that his communication effort could be more aggressive.
Call added, "You are going to see a more organized [effort.] What we've seen is a very deliberate attack by outside groups and we need to respond."
Stevenson said that Republicans plan to ramp up the activities of the Advise and Consent working group, a group of Republican senators who support prohibiting the filibuster of judicial nominees.
(c) 2005 The Hill
Reprinted from The Hill: