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Today I attended the House GOP retreat in Baltimore, at the invitation of House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence. I got to play at reporter, and to chat with some Members of Congress and staff. I also got to attend the speech with the President, and the subsequent question-and-answer session.
As others have noted, the speech very much seemed to be an attempt by the president to show that he is bipartisan, friendly, and open to GOP ideas – no matter how the facts might appear to you. Both sides took the opportunity to play to the cameras of course, with long questions centering on deficits and broken promises, and well-rehearsed answers about the trillions in deficits inherited from President Bush.
According to staff, the House Republicans had invited the president to attend and speak some weeks ago; the White House accepted. The GOP did not suggest that cameras be allowed for the speech because they assumed such an offer would be rejected. The White House asked (last night) to allow cameras and the Republicans eagerly agreed. So if the event seemed political, each side got what it wanted. The GOP is touting the benefits of having the president say – on the record – that they have offered substantive proposals. They also argue that this appearance puts Nancy Pelosi in a tough position: the president promised bipartisanship, and she’s delivering none. They see the chance to knock her down a few more pegs.
And while we’re talking about Nancy Pelosi, I spoke with several staffers speculating that this will be her last year in elective office. The argument goes that with significant House losses virtually certain, and relatrively little accomplished, she will face a restive caucus next year. If Democrats control the House, she may face a challenge from Steny Hoyer – who may be better positioned to manage a moderate course. And if the GOP wins the House, Pelosi will be expected to fall on her sword. Staffers said that Hoyer’s actions – and in particular his coddling of the Blue Dogs – suggests his campaign is already underway.
I’m also told to count on an updated version of the Contract With America (no surprise there). But I’m told to expect it later, rather than sooner. One staffer pointed out that a Contract which comes early will be forgotten by voters by election day. One that comes late is more likely to be remembered, and to feed some excitement about the coming agenda. Former Speaker Gingrich (I was told) had made this point in his comments.
While a session with pollsters Kellyanne Conway and David Livingston was not open to the press, Republican Members were delighted after the presentation. One told me that the pollsters stressed the importance of winning independent voters, rather than turning out the base. They said that a critical reason for the GOP landslide in 1994 was that independents favored the GOP by a 14 point margin. The latest polling – the GOP was told – puts Republicans ahead by 15 points.
Livingston and Conway also stressed that voters are not personally rejecting Barack Obama, and they cautioned against being seen as opposing the president personally. They said that it is his policies which are unpopular, and candidates should be careful to draw the distinction. They told the conference that simply opposing the Democrats will net 20 House seats or so; proposing a positive agenda of their own would net 20 more.
All-in-all, House Republicans are in a very good mood. One spoke about more Democrat retirements – and pointed to Leonard Boswell (D-IA) as a likely candidate to retire. This source told me to count on one, however: House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt. I was told that notwithstanding Spratt’s statements to the contrary, all signs point to him hanging it up.
I’ll follow with the videos of several interviews once I have them uploaded.