The Blame Bush Strategy Won't Work

August 10, 2010

To save themselves in the midterm elections, Democrats are counting on selling two themes: The state of the economy is all George W. Bush's fault, and Republican policies will take us backwards. President Obama relished going to Texas this week to blame his predecessor for the current bad economy.

Nice try, but it won't work. Don't take my word. This is what Mr. Obama's pollster, Joel Beneson, has found. The Benenson Strategy Group wasn't exactly quite this blunt in its report for the "Third Way," a centrist Democratic organization. But its data was.

In its poll released in July, Benenson asked, "Generally speaking, who is more responsible for the recent economic recession—President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush?" The answer was Mr. Bush 53%, Mr. Obama 26%, and "Don't know" 21%.

But answers to important issues like who's responsible for the recession are rarely binary. Buried in the "Third Way" data was a different answer that went unmentioned in its covering memo. The question of who's responsible for the recession was asked a second way, with more possible culprits.

Here the biggest blame for the recession went to "big banks and Wall Street" (34%), followed by "American consumers who lived beyond their means" (24%). Thirteen percent blamed Mr. Obama, 20% blamed Mr. Bush, and 9% were still in the "don't know category." Put another way, at least 80% didn't blame Mr. Bush, as Mr. Obama obsessively does.

More importantly, Americans simply won't fall for Mr. Obama's claim that if empowered, congressional Republicans would only return to "policies that crashed the economy . . . undercut the middle class . . . [and] mortgaged our future."

Here Mr. Obama's polling firm is more direct, warning "two-thirds of Americans now see congressional Republicans and their economic ideas as new." It's hard to argue with widely held impressions like this, especially with 81 days left until Election Day.

In this fall's contest, the GOP has a strong hold on the banner of change. Republican candidates can strengthen that claim by emphasizing a positive agenda of reform, fiscal restraint and economic growth while beating up Democrats for their miserable two-years of economic stewardship.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats are in a pickle because Americans don't like what they've done. This was brought into sharp relief this week in a poll of likely voters in 13 states with hot U.S. Senate races.

The poll was sponsored by American Crossroads, a political group involved in the midterm election that I support. Democrats now hold eight of these Senate seats while Republicans hold five. (The poll can be found at the website of American Crossroads.)

By a 61%-33% margin, voters in these battlegrounds believe America is on the wrong track. Republicans lead on the generic ballot in these Senate races by 47% to the Democrats' 39%.

The poll also tested each side's arguments, offering a choice between what Democrats and Republicans are saying about the economy, health care, financial regulation and the country's future. Republicans win all four arguments by margins of five to eight points.

If this holds up (as I believe it will) and if GOP candidates have adequate resources to make their arguments (this remains unclear), Republicans have an outside chance of taking control of the Senate. They need 10 more seats; since World War II, the average number of Senate seats the out-party has gained in an administration's first midterm election is three.

For Mr. Obama and his party, all the escape hatches are shutting at the same time. Blaming Bush and harping on the GOP's driving abilities is not a good strategy, but it may be the best Mr. Obama and his beleaguered party have.

Democrats can't sell themselves as "the results party," as Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine proclaimed in April. Nor do they have an attractive or popular policy agenda moving forward. Mr. Obama's fixation with blaming his predecessor has badly weakened him. Constantly engaging in the blame game makes the president look enfeebled and whiny rather than sturdy and confident. One of any president's most important possessions is his reputation for strong leadership.

Democrats are likely to lurch from one approach to another. Candidates on the ropes often do. At this stage, though, it doesn't much matter what they decide on. The narrative for this election is firmly in place.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, August 11, 2010.

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