Running Against Bush: Can It Work Again for Democrats in 2010?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 23, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for decades. Republicans ran against Jimmy Carter for years. Can Democrats make 2010 another referendum on George W. Bush, or at least use the unpopular former president to demonize Republicans in competitive races?

Democratic operatives assert that running against the former president next year isn’t going to be the focus of their efforts, but they are obviously more than willing to fall back on an anti-Bush message when they think it is effective.

Last week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a Web video, “Insider,” and an accompanying press release hanging the former president around the neck of former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Democratic insiders say that the video was a response to Portman’s invitation for voters to look at his record.

The DSCC video comes after a recent Quinnipiac University poll in the Buckeye State showed Portman, the favorite for the GOP Senate nomination, gaining ground on Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D) in the state’s open-seat Senate race.

Unsurprisingly, the video refers to Portman as “George Bush’s trade director” and “Bush’s budget director.” What’s noteworthy, though, is that it includes six separate photographs of Portman and Bush standing together.

Ohio Republicans scoff at the Democrats’ strategy and argue Democrats are “fighting the last war.” And Portman is likely to fire back, defending his record at the Office of Management and Budget and as trade representative and trying to refocus the discussion on growing joblessness and a ballooning national deficit.

Still, Portman, as director of the OMB under Bush, looks vulnerable to the Democrats’ strategy because of his close connection to the former president and the Bush economy.

A day after the Portman video was released, the DSCC launched a second Web video, “The True Mark Kirk,” which mocks the Illinois Congressman’s reputation as a moderate, and ends with a photograph of Kirk, now a candidate for the Senate, standing with Bush.

“When Illinois voters get to know the real Mark Kirk, they’ll find a politician who championed George Bush’s policies for years and is now standing in the way of President Obama’s bold agenda to get the economy moving again,” DSCC Communications Director Eric Schultz said in the press release announcing the video.

But if tying Portman to Bush is easy, linking the unpopular former president to Kirk is much more difficult, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee found out in 2008 when it ran a late October TV spot attacking Kirk for “his unbending support for George Bush” and for his “support of George Bush’s failed economic policies.”

Interestingly, it appears that both the 2008 DCCC TV ad and the 2009 DSCC video close with the same photograph of Bush and Kirk.

Here’s what the 2008 edition of CQ’s Politics in America had to say about Kirk, who has represented Illinois’ 10th district since his election in 2000: “Kirk parts with Republican doctrine on a number of key issues. In January of 2007, he backed all six signature bills espoused by the new Democratic majority, including initiatives to promote embryonic stem cell research and increase the federal minimum wage. Kirk was also among the 17 Republicans who voted in February 2007 for a nonbinding resolution disapproving of a Bush administration initiative to increase troop strength in Iraq. Kirk’s voting record consistently earns strong marks from abortion-rights and environmental organizations.”

While Democratic consultants are likely digging up photographs of Republican candidates with Bush in an effort to energize Democrats and boost fundraising, the often-used technique — a form of transference — isn’t likely to be nearly as effective in demonizing GOP candidates as it was when Bush occupied the White House.

Voters won’t have forgotten Bush in another 15 months, but he won’t be on their minds, either.

“The next election will be about moving forward. But it can’t just be about the challenges we face. We have to talk about why we are facing those challenges, the problems Bush left us,” said one Democratic consultant not involved with the Web videos.

With the 2010 midterm elections still more than 15 months away, it’s unclear what the nation’s economy will look like or whom voters will blame — or credit — when voters next go to the polls.

June’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found more Americans (46 percent) blaming Bush for the nation’s federal budget deficit than Congress and the Obama administration combined. But that may not still be the case a year from now, and the more time passes, the more likely that swing voters will shift the responsibility for the nation’s economic problems to current officeholders.

Ronald Reagan, after all, rode to the White House in 1980 on a wave of dissatisfaction with Carter’s presidency, but that didn’t stop voters from spanking Republicans at the polls two years later (costing Republicans 26 House seats just two years after they won 33 seats), even though the “Reagan recession” was the only way to cure the stagflation (low growth, high interest rates and inflation) that he inherited from Carter.

Bush (along with Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh) will always be a bogeyman to red-meat Democrats. But in most cases — and Ohio may be an exception — national Democratic strategists and campaign managers will need a better strategy for the midterm elections than merely running against the former president, as they did over the past two cycles.