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Democrats unhappy with Obama's tactics plot change

Prominent party members discuss going their own way to fight back – especially on fundraising issues.

November 18, 2010|By Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Frustrated by what they see as President Obama's weakness in battling Republicans, leading Democratic donors and tacticians have begun independently plotting their political recovery — including building a network of outside fundraising and campaign organizations to compete with those formed this year by Republicans.

This week, more than 100 wealthy Democrats gathered in a posh Washington hotel for a closed meeting in which participants repeatedly called for Obama be more aggressive in his agenda and tactical combat with the Republican right.

"I am used to fighting losing battles, but I don't like losing without a fight," said financier George Soros, a longtime donor to causes on the left, in a comment confirmed by his staff as part of a call to arms in private conversations at the postelection meeting of the Democracy Alliance, an organization of wealthy Democrats that provides funding to liberal groups.

In another sign of Democratic unrest, a dozen prominent Democrats — including longtime Bill Clinton advisor Harold Ickes, labor leader Andy Stern and representatives of influential interest groups — will meet Monday to discuss whether to form a new operation to combat the array of outside groups launched this year by Karl Rove and other Republican strategists, according to multiple participants.

Such a move by Democrats comes despite Obama's longstanding opposition to political spending by outside groups — particularly those that refuse to disclose their donors — and underscores the deep dissatisfaction with the White House's strategy on several fronts.

The White House declined to comment.

Many disaffected Democrats complain that the Obama administration needs to be more aggressive in advocating positions to rally the party's base and differentiate it from the Republicans. White House officials who attended the Democracy Alliance meeting, including Austan Goolsbee, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, were pressed about the administration's stances on taxes, job creation and the environment.

Some Obama supporters reject the view that the administration has been tepid.

"It's very easy to sit back in hindsight, throw darts at people and be critical of efforts, but I think what people today are forgetting is we were in a national economic emergency," said longtime Democratic donor Lou Frillman. "Obama and the entire team got up every day solely focused on arresting what I believe was an emergency … rather than making sure they were covered politically."

But some top Democrats, worried that the White House will be outflanked politically in 2012, are not waiting for party officials to take the lead in the next cycle. They are engaged in active discussions about creating independent groups to bolster Democrats, much as the GOP benefited from an array of interlocking third-party organizations that ran advertising and field efforts for Republicans this fall.

The plans are still in flux, but one idea floated during the meeting calls for raising at least $50 million through several organizations, with a focus on reenergizing and mobilizing Obama's base, according to participants in the talks, who hope to have a strategy in place by January.

"There's a strong feeling among progressives, almost to a person, that we have to fight more," said Steve Phillips, a San Francisco activist and attorney who runs the political advocacy group PowerPAC.org, which wants to raise $20 million to mobilize African American and Latino voters. "Nobody is demoralized; they're angry."

Longtime Democratic organizer Steve Rosenthal is hosting the Monday meeting with many of the figures behind America Coming Together, an independent operation that financed voter outreach in 2004, to discuss the prospects for creating a new campaign vehicle for 2012. Among those expected to attend are Ellen Malcolm, the founder of Emily's List, which backs candidates who support abortion rights, and Anna Burger, the vice chair of the Democracy Alliance.

An e-mail invitation to the event from Rosenthal cites the innovations introduced by Republican-allied fundraising groups. The invitation lists questions to be considered at the meeting, including whether the new organization should begin advertising in 2011 to prevent GOP groups from dominating the airwaves early.

He also asks whether the organization should include a section that would not have to disclose donors — a key aspect of many of the new GOP groups that drew sharp criticism from Obama and congressional Democrats this year.

Burger cast both Monday's session and the Democracy Alliance meeting as examples of the energy fueling party leaders, calling them "interesting examples of the ways Democrats are determined now to come together with more determination, doing what we have done before but doing it more effectively."

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