Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Facing the increasing likelihood of losses in the 2010 midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, President Obama and his fellow Democrats are returning to a tried-and-true campaign strategy — run against former President George W. Bush.

In speech after speech since taking office, Mr. Obama has pointed back to the problems he inherited from the Bush administration when he took office. And earlier this month, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine catalogued a slew of perceived Bush failures to the delight of supporters.

Already, Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey are testing the strategy — so far, however, unsuccessfully.

“It will be a failed strategy,” said Karl Rove, former senior political adviser to Mr. Bush. “They have been doing that very intentionally in New Jersey and Virginia thus far, and both their candidates are behind.”

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While the strategy worked in both 2006 and 2008, when Democrats took control of Congress, Mr. Rove argued that voters have moved past the Bush administration and are now beginning to judge the current president on his own record.

“People are starting to get the sense that the way that [Mr. Obama] spent two years [as a candidate] depicting the Bush administration is not living up to the way he’s now governing,” Mr. Rove said. Running against Mr. Bush “bespeaks both weakness and lack of vision.”

Still, political parties often stick with strategies that have proved successful in the past. Thus, Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey are pointing fingers back at the former president, characterizing their Republican opponents as throwbacks to the Bush era.

“Let’s be clear: George Bush is responsible for our economic problems,” Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds said recently. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine, meanwhile, has been running ads that tie his Republican opponent, Christopher J. Christie, to the Bush administration — or, in the governor’s words, the “same people who failed so miserably in the White House.”

The two states will be the testing ground to find out if Democrats can still capitalize on the low popularity of Mr. Bush. Democratic strategists see the effort as fully plausible, perhaps even necessary.

“Democrats will be able to show progress from the mess that George W. Bush left behind, such as the economy which will continue to rebound by 2010,” said Bud Jackson, a Democratic consultant based in Alexandria.

“Democrats have a responsibility to remind folks how we got here and what we’re doing to cleanup after their mistakes,” Mr. Jackson said. “…Obama inherited two wars, a country whose banking industry was imploding, record job losses and home foreclosures. There is no way he should completely own the wars or this mess, and to accept that premise would be irresponsible and poor politics.”

Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said the “the only way to demonstrate progress is to use Bush as a benchmark.”

“The biggest challenge in the 2010 midterm election is that voters may not see tangible benefits from the actions Obama has taken that would influence their vote,” she said. “It will be that comparison by which Democrats and Obama will be judged.”

Republicans, however, say that the successful strategy of the past two election cycles is more dangerous the third time around. What’s more, with Democrats in control of Congress for four years by Election Day in 2010 — and approval of Congress under 30 percent — top party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could prove a drag on many campaigns.

“Democrats run against George W. Bush at their own peril,” said Scott Reed, former campaign manager for Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential run. “The Democrats’ main problem is Speaker Pelosi and the far left. They are frustrated, restless and very unhappy.”

Even though he’s been out of office for eight months, Mr. Bush remains a prime target. In its premiere this month, “Saturday Night Live” made a joke about the former president getting his foot stuck in a bucket. The satirical Web site the Onion on Monday featured an article titled: “George W. Bush Chuckles To Self Upon Thinking About How He Was President Of The United States For Almost A Decade.”

Mr. Obama, who has served nearly 17 percent of his term in office, also continues to harken back to the Bush era. Last week at a campaign-style rally in College Park, the president said that “part of the reason I faced a trillion-dollar-plus deficit when I walked into the door of the White House is because too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for, from the Iraq war to tax breaks for the wealthy.”

Pollster John Zogby, who describes himself as a Democrat, said the tactic of running against a former president has worked several times in the past. And, he said, Democrats will be on the defensive in 2010, which might tempt them to employ the strategy once again.

“A good fallback for Democrats is to remind the nation of the George W. Bush presidency,” he said.

The 2010 midterm races feature several Bush-era alumni, from former budget director Rob Portman of Ohio, who is seeking a Senate seat, to former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd in Connecticut. When Mr. Simmons announced his intention to run, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee immediately issued a press release calling him “a staunch supporter” of Mr. Bush’s policies.

Still, Mr. Rove said Democrats are choosing a dangerous strategy if they choose to run against Mr. Bush.

“If I were a Democrat, and somebody came in and told me, ‘You know what you need to do is run against Bush,’ I’d kick them out the door as quickly as possible,” he said.

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