Bush versus Obama in 2009


A tweaked and expanded version of the Sunday print column:

Is George W. Bush on the ballot this November in New Jersey? I recently saw a Democratic TV ad that invoked him as a bogeyman six times in 30 seconds.

Is Bush on the ballot this Novem"er in Virginia? I recently heard the Democratic candidate for governor declare, “Let’s be clear. George Bush is responsible for our economic problems."

The two marquee races of 2009 – Jon Corzine’s fevered bid to save his gubernatorial job in New Jersey, and his party’s ambitious bid to elect a third successive Democratic governor in Virginia - will demonstrate whether Bush-bashing can still sway the voters and deliver the goods.

After all, the tactic worked so well for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. And let’s remember that running successfully against ex-presidents is a tried and true tradition. The Democrats thrashed Herbert Hoover in 1932, and then banged on him for the rest of the century.

The Republicans are no different. They racked up a landslide against George McGovern 37 years ago, yet they still circulate his name as a synonym for wimp. They ran against Jimmy Carter in 1988, even though he’d been gone for eight years; in TV ads, they dug up footage of cars waiting in gas pump lines during the ’79 energy crisis, complete with Johnny Mercer on the soundtrack crooning "I Remember You."

But I question whether bashing Bush will work this year.

It’s just as likely that the Republicans can win both races by framing them as referenda on Barack Obama – not necessarily by attacking the president directly, but by identifying and mobilizing those voters who seem particularly angry about his proposed policy overhauls (as well as those voters who have swallowed preposterous lies about his overhauls).

To grasp the opportunity, Republicans need only look at the polls. In blue New Jersey, a new Quinnipiac University survey shows that Obama’s approval rating has fallen 12 points in the past two months (from 68 to 56 percent), due largely to a plunge among swing-voting independents. And in Virginia, a new Washington Post survey shows that Obama is actually a drag on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds; only 23 percent of swing voters said that Obama’s endorsement makes them more likely to support Deeds, while 37 percent said they were less likely.

A bit of perspective is necessary, however. If the new president appears to lack coattails, he would hardly be the first. Historically, the party that controls the White House tends to lose these New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races. The Republicans won both in 1997, one year after Bill Clinton was easily re-elected. Amd the Democrats won both in 2001 – a mere eight weeks after 9/11, when Bush was a war president at the peak of his popularity.

These "odd-year" voters tend to be contrarians who care little about the prevailing Washington powers; indeed, they often care more about quirky local issues. Virginia voters in 1997 got all excited when Republican candidate James Gilmore pledged to abolish the hated property tax on automobiles. They elected him on that basis, not realizing that the car tax was not a state levy, that actually it was handled by counties and municipalities.

But this kind of historical perspective won’t matter this year. Obama’s people recognize the potential spin problem: If Corzine and Deeds go down in November, their defeats will be widely interpreted (by the political media, with GOP encouragement) as a general thumbs-down verdict on Obama, thereby further imperiling his political capital.

That would not be fair to Obama, at least in New Jersey. Corzine’s woes are clearly his own; he was taking heat for the state economy, corruption among fellow Democrats, and the tax issue long before Obama broke big. Obama has been stumping for Corzine, and Corzine has put Obama in a TV ad, but in the end that race is a referendum on Corzine.

Perhaps Corzine’s best hope is to link Chris Christie, his Republican opponent, to a politician who is even more unpopular than he is. That would be Bush, of course. Hence the Corzine TV ad that seeks to weight down Christie with Bush baggage - noting that Christie raised money for Bush, that he allegedly awarded millions in no-bid contracts to "Bush cronies," that Christie is pushing "the same failed Bush economics," that he is "Bush’s friend."

The Corzine team also got some luck the other day, when the news surfaced that Christie, on several occasions, had discussed his prospective Republican candidacy with Bush political guru Karl Rove – while serving as U.S. attorney, a job that is supposed to be apolitical. On July 7, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on an unrelated matter, Rove said that Christie wanted to know "who were good people that knew about running for governor that he could talk to."

Corzine has tried to mine this news for its Bush connection, but the issue is whether New Jersey voters care more about Karl Rove than about their own property taxes. I suspect it’s the latter, and, besides, the Quinnipiac pollsters said last month that 77 percent of New Jersey voters want Corzine to focus on state issues in this campaign.

But it’s arguably smart politics (or perhaps just desperate politics) to link Christie to "failed Bush economics." Even though Obama has taken hits in the polls, people are still likelier to blame Bush – not Obama – for the nation’s economic woes. The latest Rasmussen poll reports that 55 percent of Americans cite Bush as the main culprit. The latest CBS-New York Times poll, asking a different mix of questions, reports that 30 percent blame Bush while only four percent blame Obama.

So it’s no wonder that Obama himself is trying to make the races a referendum on Bush. Not long ago, he headlined a Virginia rally for Creigh Deeds and sought to shift blame to the ex-president by lamenting "the folks who created the mess...When I walked in, we had a $1.3-trillion deficit. That was gift-wrapped and waiting for me when I walked into the Oval Office." He ratcheted up the rhetoric while recently stumping with Corzine in New Jersey, assailing Bush for "a recession that was caused by years of recklessness and irresponsibility."

In Virginia, Deeds himself sought in a speech last Friday to saddle his Republican opponent with Bush baggage: "Just recently, (Bob McDonnell) said he believes that President Bush did a good job and he created - and I'm quoting here - 'an economic revival in America.' The fiscal policies of George Bush doubled the national debt and resulted in over 300,000 Virginians losing their jobs and 48,000 Virginia families losing their homes to foreclosure. That's not a revival, and I will not let my opponent take us back to this economic approach."

These odd-year elections are all about passion. Since most voters tend to stay home, the trick is to crank them up and turn them out. With the Democrats playing defense in 2009, perhaps their best hope is to galvanize their people by banging Bush one more time (and if it works, notwithstanding Bush’s disappearing act, we’ll see the tactic again in 2010).

But, considering the sweep of Obama’s ambitious agenda and ubiquitous presence, it’s more likely that any ’09 referendum will be on him – or perceived as such. The past recedes, fairly or not. To borrow the president’s words, it’s all about "the fierce urgency of now."