In 2010, Democrats try to run against George Bush – again

Jon Ward Contributor
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Democrats swear its not 1994 all over. From the way they’re talking, you’d think it was 2006.

Top Democrats are reformatting one of the main talking points from the year they took back the House and Senate, tying opponents in local elections to George W. Bush.

“The only playbook [Republicans] have is the playbook they had for the previous eight years, which drove the economy into a ditch that we’re continuing to dig ourselves out of,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Daily Caller.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, cast the election in similar terms.

“Either we return to the failed economic policies of the past or we press forward and continue to focus on what’s most important, which is jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said, in a phone interview.

It is the logical next step in the Democratic narrative of the last several years, which has used as its cornerstone the belief that Bush has been and remains their most effective foil.

That proved true in 2006 and 2008, but Democrats this year are facing anti-incumbent sentiment among the electorate that rivals that of 2006, when the nation was fed up with the Bush administration. Only this time, Democrats are in the cross-hairs.

The midterms, said Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, are “going to be an earthquake, but it’s not going to be a tsunami.”

They will attempt to run on job creation initiatives and the passage of health-care reform, but at this point it is still questionable whether those issues are assets or liabilities to Democrats.

Attack is one of their remaining options.

“We will not allow this to be an election just about Democrats,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in an interview.

“If we allow this election to simply be a referendum on us, and not be one in which we remind the electorate where Republicans left the country when Barack Obama took office … then we will face the consequences of not having an election of contrasts,” Menendez said. “If we have an election of contrasts, which we clearly will — our candidates fully understand that this will be an election of contrasts in each and every state — we will fare well.”

The White House is dialed in on the message.

“It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself,” David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, told National Journal. “And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”

But Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said Democrats have a “rhetoric versus reality problem.”

“Most people are willing to give Obama a chance,” he said. “That said, I don’t think people are open to the ‘Bush sucks’ chant anymore.”

House Democrats have a 79-seat advantage over Republicans, having picked up 55 seats since 2006. In the Senate, Democrats hold 58 seats but have a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority because the chamber’s two independents, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, caucus with them.

They are facing an uphill battle this fall due to historical trends – a new president’s party traditionally suffers during the first mid-term following his election – and by widespread voter discontent with the economy and job loss.

Republican veterans such as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association who was Republican National Committee Chairman in 1994 when the GOP retook the House, sound nearly giddy with optimism.

“We were not in this good of shape when I was chairman in the end of 93 and the beginning of 94,” Barbour said in a phone interview. “The public wasn’t as mad at the Democrats … the public wasn’t afraid of what the Clinton administration was doing in the sense of the long-term effects on American economic policy, tax policy, spending policy, trade policy.”

“The Democrats say, ‘Well this time, it’s so bad, at least we know it’s coming,’” Barbour said. “Well, they probably do.”

Van Hollen, during an interview at DCCC headquarters on Capitol Hill, said that those who talk of a GOP House takeover “should consult with the chairman of the Republican party, who just said that they’re not going to be taking back the House.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele backtracked last week after saying on Fox News that the GOP would not retake the House.

“It’s one of the few reality-based comments I’ve seen from Michael Steele,” said Van Hollen, who has crossed paths for years with Steele in Maryland political combat. “That was a moment of clarity on his part.”

A series of Democratic retirements in December, capped by the switch of Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith from the Democrats to Republicans, sparked talk that Democrats could face a tidal wave. They are expected to lose at least 20 seats, and observers have said Van Hollen’s job will be to keep the losses from going any higher than that.

Van Hollen was quick to point out that Republicans have had more members announce their retirements (14) this cycle than Democrats have (10).

“This is not going to be redux 1994,” Van Hollen said. “But you know what, if Eric Cantor and those guys want to say that that’s what’s going to happen, we’ll let them do it. It’s not going to happen.”