Monday, July 19, 2010

Democrats won't win by running against Bush

Cross-posted from MyDD.com.

Even though he wasn’t on the ballot, Democrats ran against George W. Bush in 2008 and won. This isn’t 2008, and that strategy won’t work again. It’s a historical lesson: we can’t fight the current war with the strategy and technology of the last one. I pound my head against the wall every time I see something like this:

Watching yesterday's forum on "Meet the Press" -- which featuring NRCC Chair Pete Sessions, NRSC Chair John Cornyn, DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen and DSCC Chair Bob Menendez -- it appeared to be a Bush vs. Obama debate by proxy… Van Hollen: "During the whole eight years of the Bush administration, we actually lost over 600,000 private sector jobs." And Menendez: "It's not just talking about President Bush; it's the policies that they espouse that are in essence Bush's policies. Those led us to a 72% percent increase in the debt from $5.7 trillion to $9.8 trillion when Bush left."

I’m reminded of a discussion between two pundits I heard on public radio last week, though unfortunately I don’t remember which show so there's no link or transcript. One pundit mentioned that Obama has been president for 2 ½ years. A couple minutes later, the other said basically "Wait a minute; you said two and a half when it’s actually one and a half. I don’t blame you for the slip because neither I nor the interviewer caught it, which speaks to the fact that Obama is now an entrenched reality in voters’ minds and that he owns all the problems he faces."

Politicians have to find a way to play to the voters’ mindset rather than patronizing them by trying to change it, and this year it is, “Talk to me about today’s problems, not yesterday’s. You’re in charge now so I will blame you.” It doesn’t matter if there are too many problems to solve in just two years, and it doesn’t matter when the problems started or why. Many voters feel too busy living their lives to educate themselves about the details, or feel that “common sense” means the problem is what it looks like at first blush and don’t tell me otherwise. Hence the new Pew poll that finds most voters think Obama started the bailouts, and hence Republican Senator Bob Bennett’s comment that voters “confused TARP and the stimulus plan. They confused TARP and the omnibus bill. They confused TARP and the president’s budget.”

Unfortunately, Democrats aren’t going to get the chance to correct voters about the Bush policies. A candidate gets just 30 seconds to be quoted in a news story and 30 seconds to shoot an ad, and just three points voters will remember from a fair booth or local speech. Don’t give them a ten minute economic lecture or timeline – find something concise that shares their focus on the now. They won’t even listen if you start with a focus on the yesterday. They’ll walk away muttering, “Typical politician, pointing fingers and making excuses.”

So unless your opponent was a prominent member of Bush’s economic team, a better campaign line than blaming Bush would be, “Thanks to Democratic policies, the private sector has created jobs for six straight months after losing them for every month since 2007. Tea party opponents, however, want to get rid of those policies, as well as Social Security and the Civil Rights Act.” You could add “We could have done even more if the Senate opposition was focused on policy rather than politics,” but that’s starting to get into the procedural weeds about which non-junkies don’t want to spend time learning. When it's time to talk about your opponent, talk about the current opponents - John Boehner's pro-BP and pro-Wall Street comments, the aforementioned Rand Paul and Sharron Angle - not about the past.

The moment you say the magic word Bush, voters will think you’re shirking responsibility and ducking blame. It doesn’t matter if it is indeed Bush’s fault and it doesn’t matter if you’re not to blame – we’re talking about perception and about November, not about policy or truth. So again, Democrats have to share the voters’ focus on today, not waste time trying to get them to think about yesterday. Don’t rerun the 2008 campaign when it’s not 2008.

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