LEESBURG, Va. — Nancy Pelosi's House Democrats are advertising their willingness to work with Republicans, but their policy positions and political activity are all pointed toward a single goal: beating the GOP in the 2014 midterms.
Former President Bill Clinton outlined what appears to be their strategy at their annual retreat here last week: stake out a clear position, own it, and make sure the public sees you fighting for it.
"We Democrats own the health reform issue now … if certain problems come up that need changing, you need to get caught trying to change it even if you can't pass it," Clinton said, a comment that could also apply to gun control, the economy, and immigration reform.
"We are fired up," said Democratic Caucus vice-chairman Joe Crowley. And indeed, at least for now, Democrats are staking out a far more aggressive stance than following the 2008 election when they deferred on policy and politics to President Obama or in 2010, when the House Democratic minority struggled to find relevance.
The notion that they'll take back the House in 2014 seems far fetched thanks to redistricting and historic realities. But their electoral successes in 2012 and the fact that the GOP still hasn't gotten a grasp on the new political landscape clearly has Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her crew feeling their oats.
On virtually every major issue, Democrats in the House have rolled out policy proposals that are so far to the left of Speaker John Boehner's conservative conference they have little chance of seeing floor action.
An assault weapons ban, pathway to citizenship for the 13 million undocumented workers in the country, walling off Medicare and Social Security from wholesale changes and closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, agribusinesses and the oil industry all poll well and are bread and butter items for their party.
But most are dead on arrival in the House, and many would be an enormous lift in the Democratically controlled Senate. But that's not stopping Pelosi and her caucus, who are finally freed up from worrying about Obama's reelection and are squaring off against a weak speaker who's party suddenly finds it's hardline conservative positions not gaining as much traction as they once did.
"Republicans will either compromise with House Democrats on gun violence prevention and immigration reform or risk alienating suburban voters and the rapidly growing Hispanic voters before the 2014 elections," a veteran Democratic operative said Friday.
Of course publicly, Democratic leaders insist they want to work with Republicans and believe they're in a position to do so now, although they complain that Republicans don't seem to have come to the same conclusion yet.
"I read [Majority Leader] Eric Cantor's speech. I think we need something more than a gloss of being friendly," Rep. Sander Levin said Thursday, adding that Republicans are "playing with fire" if they don't, he warned.
And despite the calls for cooperation, Democrats are clearly steering themselves into a direct conflict with Republicans. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel has dubbed the Boehner-led Congress the "Congress of Chronic Chaos" and showed a video at the retreat titled "Tea Party Congress II: The Sequel" that sums up how he and leadership are approaching the 113th Congress.
Even Pelosi showed signs of the obvious by the end of the week. "I don't underestimate my opponents. I don't overestimate them either," Pelosi said.
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact John Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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