The GOP Surge Isn't Obama's Fault

The president suffered a bruising at the polls Tuesday. Bush strategist Mark McKinnon on how he lost his magic—and why he's not really to blame.

11.04.09 1:47 AM ET

The post-presidential election correction has officially kicked in. Barack Obama cannot translate his popularity to other Democrats when he’s not on the ballot.

The only absolute we can count on after Tuesday's elections is that the press will overinterpret the results. No matter that there are important nuances, local issues, unique circumstances, and dramatically varying quality of candidates, the media will default to the simplistic explanation.

It is fair to conclude the bloom is off Obama’s rose. But, that’s largely political entropy setting in. It’s inevitable for all newly elected presidents.

During President Bush's eight years as president, no matter where the election was, or what the circumstances were, and no matter how we tried to spin it, the results were always in some form or fashion a referendum on the president.

And so it will be with President Obama. It ain’t fair. But it's life in the big chair. And Team Obama knows it. That's why they tried to distance themselves from Creigh Deeds' campaign for governor in Virginia weeks before the election. It’s pretty ugly when your campaign gets thrown under the bus by the sitting president of your party before voters have cast any votes. But Team Obama saw the writing on the wall in Virginia, and rather than stick it out until the end, they waved the white flag early in an effort to distance themselves from responsibility for the outcome. And while Team Obama will make the case that the reason Deeds fared so poorly was because he ran away from Obama, the margin of McDonnell's victory makes it clear Obama could have been Deeds’ running mate and the result probably would not have been much different.

Two storylines we are likely to see are that the results are a repudiation of President Obama—and that the right wing of the Republican Party has taken over and has driven moderates out of the party.

Now, it is fair to conclude the bloom is off Obama's rose. But, that's largely political entropy setting in. It's inevitable for all newly elected presidents. Campaigns raise expectations and hopes to levels that simply can never be realistically delivered. And the physics of modern politics simply translates into voters having very little patience. After George W. Bush was elected in 2000, many projected Republican hegemony and dominance for decades to come. Similar echoes were heard in the weeks following Obama’s election.

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Republicans won a clean sweep in Virginia of the top three statewide offices. And Bob McDonnell won the governor's race by a huge margin. What does it mean? Well, first and foremost it means McDonnell was a terrific candidate and ran a great campaign. Contrary to the meta-narrative the press will write, McDonnell actually ran a very pragmatic, non-ideological campaign focused on local jobs and roads issues and shunned offers of help from socially conservative outsiders like Sarah Palin.

The big man, Chris Christie, beats the thin man, Jon Corzine. Hard to spin this one. Obama won New Jersey over McCain by 57-42 percent. New Jersey is a traditionally blue state. Corzine outspent Christie three-to-one, most of it his own money, and, unlike Creigh Deeds in Virginia, had the full-throated endorsement of Obama. Team Obama was all in and can’t blame the candidate on this one. Voters were concerned, in order, about property taxes (26 percent), the economy (21 percent), corruption (20 percent) and health care (18 percent). Corzine had a lot of problems and high unfavorables. It may be impossible to correlate, but I think Corzine’s ad basically calling Christie fat (slow-motion footage of Christie’s mid-section with a voice over blaming Chris Christie for “throwing his weight around”) was a huge strategic mistake. The spot crossed the line into a truly personal, cheap attack. And the problem is a vast majority of Americans, and I suspect probably two-thirds of New Jersey, more closely identify with Christie’s body type.

So, what we can say about Tuesday’s elections is simply that reality has set in. Obama’s personal popularity does not magically translate to electoral success for Democrats. Voters are concerned about the economy, spending, and big government and increasingly are ascribing responsibility to Obama and the Democratic Party.

What we can also say is that this election will largely be viewed as a repudiation of Obama policies and will therefore have very real consequences—the most immediate of which is likely to be diminished support among Blue Dog Democrats for Obama’s health-care initiative.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.