Bush Blame: Democratic Strategy Won’t Win Midterms

Charlie Rangel's ethics mess is just the latest headache that may dog Democrats this fall. Mark McKinnon on 10 other problems with the party's re-election strategy.

George W. Bush (Charles Dharapak / AP Photo)

On Friday night’s CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) found a new critic: President Obama. Obama said he finds the ethics charges against Rangel “very troubling” and added that he hopes the 20-term lawmaker will step down from office with his dignity intact. “He’s somebody who’s at the end of his career,” said Obama. “I’m sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity. And my hope is that it happens.” The Daily Beast's Mark McKinnon on 10 problems with the party's re-election strategy.

With Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), the once all-powerful Ways and Means Committee chairman, facing 13 ethics charges, I expect a press release shortly from Democratic leadership blaming President George W. Bush for Rangel’s problems. Democrats have blamed Bush for everything else.

Unlike most of my GOP brethren, I actually like President Barack Obama. I don’t recoil when I see him on television. While I don’t agree with much of what he and his administration are doing, I don’t wake up every morning hoping for him to fail. Presidential leadership requires taking responsibility, and the extent to which Obama and the Democrats—almost two years in—are hooked like crack addicts on blaming Bush for all their woes does drive me crazy.

Folks in the real world don’t blame Bush for decisions made by Democrats—in control of the House, Senate, and White House—in the last two years.

Voters are more responsible and realistic. They have moved on. On July 27, 2010, some 553 days after Obama’s inauguration, political history changed. The Washington Times ran an article under the headline “Obama’s base quits blaming Bush.”

What are Democrats gonna do now?

Life inside the Beltway bubble dulls your thinking. Here in the real world, paychecks and pocketbook issues matter most. Yet Nancy Pelosi is peddling posh designer totes and Harry Reid is blithely denying the fiscal insolvency of Social Security.

History was made two years ago when Obama was elected with 53 percent of the vote, more than any Democratic president except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Now, his approval rating mirrors the public’s spiraling pessimism on the economy.

Voters are increasingly losing confidence in the president’s ability to lead. And desperate times call for desperate measures.

Like the distracting patter of an old stage magician meant to mask a sleight of hand, Democrats gleefully announce that their “brilliant” theme for the August recess and the 2010 campaign season is ... “ Blame Bush.”

Well, Democrats “can spin, they can sing, they can dance naked in the streets saying it’s about Bush, but he’s not on the ballot this year,” responds Rep. Greg Walden (R -OR).

Voters know whose hands are at the helm now. And with the elections less than 100 days away, here are the 10 telling signs that blaming bad times on Bush is not a winning strategy:

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1. Red regions are gaining; blue are bleeding. Folks are fleeing stricken states in search of jobs. Based on these population changes, eight states in the more conservative South and West are projected to gain one or more U.S. House seats. With a probable gain of three or four seats, the biggest winner is Texas—not surprising, with its continuing record job growth. Ten states, mostly in the more liberal Northeast, will likely lose one House seat or more.

2. Republicans are pulling ahead in U.S. House races. With a projected gain of more than 40 House seats in November, Republican candidates also have the financial lead in most of the 15 competitive races in which Democratic incumbents aren’t running. Republicans only need a net gain of 39 seats to take the “damn gavel” away from Speaker Pelosi.

3. Toss-ups are turning red in the U.S. Senate. The GOP is leading or tied in eight Senate races for seats now held by Democrats, and is ahead in all Republican-held districts. More toss-up states on the map are leaning Republican. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee predicts a change in control of the Senate is now possible in just two election cycles.

4. Republicans are winning governorships. Thirty-seven governorships are being contested in November. Democrats are defending 19; Republicans 18. Of the 23 races without incumbents, thanks to term limits and voluntary—or involuntary—retirements, at least seven of these open states are already safe bets to switch to GOP control: Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Add a promising Colorado, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, a possible Illinois, and retention of incumbencies, and Republicans take control of the majority of governorships. The Republican Governors Association has a record $40 million cash on hand to invest in these races and to promote its national “ Remember November” campaign.

5. Republicans are winning state legislatures. Eighty-three percent of all state legislative seats are on the line in November. These local races can change the game on the national level. In most states, the legislative chambers, along with the governor, direct where congressional district lines are redrawn. In states like Pennsylvania, Republicans only need to pick up three seats to bring about a change in control. A Republican resurgence nationwide led by the Republican State Leadership Committee will give the GOP sole redistricting authority in more than 160 U.S. House districts, nearly six times more than their Democratic counterparts.

6. Republicans are winning on the issues. Voters trust Republicans more than Democrats on nine out of 10 key issues, including the all important economy. And the number of voters who view taxes as very important has jumped to its highest level ever. Here, Republicans already hold the edge on trust, 53 to 36 percent. Although overall awareness of the coming tax increases is low, already 55 percent of voters in 12 swing states, including 57 percent of independents, say they are less likely to vote for Democratic congressional candidates if next year’s scheduled tax increases are not stopped or delayed.

7. Democrats are losing black and Hispanic support. Only 43 percent of Hispanics, a key Democratic voting bloc, are satisfied with Obama’s performance, with the economy a major concern. Another 32 percent are undecided, while 21 percent say he’s done a poor job. And Gallup shows Obama’s job approval rating at 85 percent among black Americans, down from 94 percent in March and at the lowest ever as president.

8. Democrats are losing men, women, whites, and independents. Large numbers of whites, men, and independents have given up on Obama since his election. Support among whites dropped from 51 percent in July 2009 to 37 percent in July 2010, from 52 percent to 38 percent among independents, and from 54 percent to 39 percent among male voters overall. And while Obama averaged 59 percent approval among women in 2009, that number is now down 14 points to just 45 percent, threatening the Democrats’ traditional gender advantage.

9. Democrats are losing the young. Among millennials, who voted 2-to-1 for Obama, the president’s approval rating was 73 percent shortly after his January 2009 inauguration. That number plummeted to 57 percent a year later, and the president now trails a generic Republican among 18- to 34-year-olds.

10. Republican voters are energized; Democrats disinterested. Seventy-two percent of Republicans are certain they will vote in November, compared to 49 percent of Democrats. Democratic Party identification is down from the 8-point advantage in 2009 and the 12-point edge in 2008. And while moderates are peeling away, the more liberal in the party argue Democrats are not progressive enough.

These signs should be a wakeup call to Democrats. Folks in the real world aren’t dining with the editor of Vogue, or vacationing in Bar Harbor and Spain. They don’t see the Tea Party as elitists or the next enemy to fear. And they don’t blame Bush for decisions made by Democrats—in control of the House, Senate, and White House—in the last two years.

While Obama bailed on the Boy Scouts this week, choosing instead to visit with the ladies of The View, voters are taking a distinctly different, realistic, and frustrated view of the political landscape.

Though they once looked to this new kind of president with hope for change, they now know there is no easy fix, or easy blame. They see November coming. Bush is not on their ballot. And they know dancing naked in the streets and bashing Bush won’t help.

Democratic leaders need to look in the mirror when placing blame: The naked truth is there.

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.