Voters get that the former president is mainly responsible for the current mess. But it won't help Democrats now
At an Atlanta fundraiser last night, President Obama said that the Republicans who want to take back Congress “don’t have a single idea that’s different from George W. Bush’s ideas. Not one. Instead, they’re betting on amnesia.”
That’s certainly true. But the president, not surprisingly, left out one extra bit of information: Betting on amnesia is a pretty good bet for the GOP, at least for this year.
Mostly, that’s just the nature of midterm elections, which are driven by the buyer’s remorse of swing voters. The only question is how deep that remorse will be, and — as I’ve noted before — it was always going to be severe this year, given the horrible economy, the high expectations that greeted Obama’s presidency, and the Democrats’ control of the executive and legislative branches. In this environment, the GOP functions primarily as a protest vehicle and efforts by the in-power party to re-frame the campaign as a choice between two governing philosophies fall on deaf ears.
But that isn’t stopping Democrats from trying. Obama’s Atlanta speech wasn’t the first time he’s reminded audiences of the mess he inherited, and it certainly won’t be the last. And Democrats, as Greg Sargent reported yesterday, are now circulating a memo that suggests voters can be yet be persuaded “that voting Republican would be a return to Bush policies.”
Sorry, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic about this — and Democrats with long memories should know why. There’s a (relatively) recent midterm election in which this exact strategy was employed — amid eerily similar economic conditions. And it failed. The only difference is that it was a Republican president pleading with the public not to go back to the dark days of his predecessor’s administration and Democratic candidates benefiting from the public’s refusal to listen.
This was the story of the 1982 midterms, when Ronald Reagan and the Republicans — faced with surging joblessness that broke into double-digits a month before the election – invoked the ghost of Jimmy Carter over and over again. Carter had been driven out of office by Reagan in a 44-state landslide in 1980. The economy was stalled in ’80, inflation was astronomical, national confidence was low, and Carter’s approval ratings were on par with Bush’s 2007 and 2008 numbers. Reagan and the GOP sought aggresively to remind voters of all of this and to argue — as Obama and the Democrats are now — that they had put the country back on the right track and the good news would soon be coming.
“Our critics are saying our economy is on its knees,” Reagan said at an ’82 campaign rally. “Well, you know something, if the economy is back on its knees, that’s quite an improvement because two years ago it was flat on its back.”
The GOP spent lavishly on TV ads linking Democratic candidates to Carter and to the “malaise” of the late ’70s. In unveiling one series of commercials, Guy Vander Jagt, the House GOP’s campaign chief, noted that, “economic problems did not appear out of thin air in January of 1981.”
None of this worked, of course. With unemployment galloping out control (it was nearly three points higher on Election Day ’82 than it had been in ’80), voters — who had initially been smitten with the new president — turned on Reagan and his party and the GOP suffered a crushing blow in the midterms. By the end of ’82, even Republicans were calling on Reagan not to seek reelection in ’84.
The “blame Bush” strategy won’t work any better. The ’82 electorate hadn’t suddenly changed its mind about Carter. Polls showed that a plurality of all voters — and a majority of independents — blamed Carter and the Democrats for the country’s economic problems (just as they now blame Bush, instead of Obama). But it didn’t matter. The electorate perpetually exists in the present tense, without collective memory or foresight. Democrats benefited from this reality in 1982 (and 2006, for that matter), and they’ll be hurt by it in 2010 — no matter how many times they bring up George W. Bush’s name.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
More Related Stories
- Is the Environmental Defense Fund ruining environmentalism?
- Top 5 investigative videos of the week: "Winning" Afghanistan
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11