How do Democrats run against George W. Bush this fall without looking like a bunch of whiners? If they can come up with a good answer to that question, it may mean the difference between retaining control of Congress or losing it.
A new poll Tuesday, released by a conservative political group, showed that a large number of voters still blame Bush for the countries’ economic woes. Only 33 percent of 1,300 likely voters surveyed by Public Opinion Strategies held President Obama at fault, while 52 percent said Bush is “more responsible.”
The data stood out as a lone piece of bad news for Republicans in a poll that was commissioned by the American Crossroads group, who argued that the survey demonstrates that the GOP has a good chance of regaining control of the Senate this fall.
“The one message that Democrats have that works for them is that former President Bush is responsible for the economy,” said Glen Bolger, the pollster who conducted the survey.
Yet the same poll showed that one of the most effective arguments that Republicans could make is, “It’s time for Democrats to stop living in the past by blaming others for nearly ten percent employment and their runaway government spending.” About 54 percent of those surveyed agreed with this.
President Obama showed a heightened sensitivity to this charge in a 30-minute speech to party donors at a fundraiser in Austin, Texas on Monday.
“I notice some Republicans say, well, he just wants to bash the previous administration. He’s looking backwards. He’s trying to take the focus off the tough economic situation that a lot of people are feeling. No, no, no,” Obama said.
Democrats first saw the inefficacy of blaming Bush as a campaign strategy last fall, when it failed to move voters in New Jersey and Virginia, who elected Republicans to be governor in both states.
“What a stupid strategy that was,” Steve Hildebrand, a Democratic strategist and Obama campaign aide, told Politico in January.
In his remarks Monday, Obama never even mentioned Bush by name, but spent the majority of his speech laying out how he believes his policies have helped arrest the economy’s negative momentum and have begun to turn it in the right direction, while arguing that Republicans want to return to Bush-style policies.
“Their big economic plan is to renew the tax cuts that helped to turn surpluses into deficits — tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans,” Obama said. “And once you get past that, they don’t have another new idea. That’s it.”
This charge, of course, is not true. Many Republicans and Democrats have numerous ideas on how to increase economic growth. Much of the most bipartisan agreement centers on the need for a reformed, simplified tax code with fewer loopholes for special interests and big business, combined with a reduced corporate income tax.
Many Republicans also want to repeal Obama’s health care bill and reduce the regulatory and tax burden that they believe the Obama agenda is laying on the private sector, creating uncertainty and anxiety about the future and causing capital to dry up.
And Republican leaders in Congress have made the political calculation — some call it cynical and spineless — that the more details they offer about their governing agenda in advance, the bigger a target they will offer for Obama and Democrats to shoot at. Instead they have tried not to distract from the anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic wave building, which they hope will sweep them into control of the House and possibly even the Senate.
So Obama and Democrats, desperate for any issue that will help them gain traction, are looking to squeeze yet more juice out of the same talking point that served them to devastating effect in 2006 and in 2008.
“This is obviously a wave election. They’re hunting us down with dogs out there,” said Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Begala said that the caveat to the wave building against Democrats is that “in the individual races, in many of them, individual Democrats seem to be able to paddle their way against the wave.”
Begala credited the Republican Party with nominating some bad candidates, singling out Sharron Angle in Nevada for special recognition in that category, and for in other cases running hard to the right due to Tea Party influence, such as in Florida, where Marco Rubio is now facing a centrist challenge from current Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent in a race with weak Democratic candidates.
“The single greatest strategic asset that the Democratic Party has is the Republican Party,” Begala said.
Still, Begala said, Democrats need to be careful about how they talk about Republicans returning to Bush policies.
“It depends on how you do it,” he said. “It has to be prospective, all about the future and not the past.”
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