Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Democrats' Campaign Strategy (Or Their Biggest Fears)

The Democrats are growing apprehensive about the upcoming midterm elections. In a fundraising effort, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) recently mailed an impassioned plea for campaign contributions. The letter, which was signed by Vice President Joe Biden, was filled with emotion and scare tactics.

The letter continued to play on two main themes of recent Democrat campaigns. The first was the tired theme of “Blame Bush”. The current administration cannot seem to avoid the siren call of Bush-bashing that is increasingly falling on deaf ears. This rhetoric certainly helped Obama get into the White House, but it is questionable nearly two years later if it will really convince any but the most diehard Obamaniacs to open their checkbooks.

Besides continuing to harp on the Bush era, the letter also attempted to paint the Republicans as obstructionist and disinterested in helping America. For instance it stated, “I [Joe Biden] have served in the Senate for 36 years and in all of that time, I have never seen more Republicans committed to permanent, unyielding obstruction.”

However, what was most interesting was a bookmark insert, included in the mailing, that outlined the “3 REPUBLICANS WE MUST DEFEAT IN 2010.” Surprisingly, the three are not exactly household names. The handout named Richard Burr (NC), the current Senator from North Carolina, Roy Blunt (MO), currently a Congressman from Missouri, and Rob Portman (OH), formerly a Congressman from Ohio, Director of the OMB, and US Trade Rep. All three are currently running for Senate.

The pitfalls of all three candidates, according to the insert, were their connections to Bush. Burr “prove[ed] his allegiance to the Bush-Cheney-Rove ideology, [by] call[ing] in Karl Rove himself to help his reelection campaign.” Blunt, the “former House Majority Whip helped turn President Bush’s disastrous agenda into law while accepting thousands of dollars in contributions from Big Oil.” Portman is “‘A Bush Guy,’… and is trying to hide his past as ‘the face of the Bush Administration on two issues – trade and the economy’ and a key architect of our nation’s economic crisis.”

It is interesting to see who the Democrats have decided to aggressively target. According to The Cook Political Report, Burr’s seat is designated “Likely Republican”. On the other hand, the seats that Blunt (currently held by Kit Bond R-MO) and Portman (currently held by George Voinovich R-OH) are running for are marked as clear toss-ups. Cook also mentions Bunning (R-KY) and Gregg (R-NH) as the other two toss-up Republican seats. Why the Democrats feel Burr is a bigger threat (or easier target) than Bunning or Gregg is unclear.

Such campaign tactics are common – on both sides of the aisle – and despite the vitriol are unsurprising. However, it is clear that the Democrats have offered little variation in their strategies over the past few years. The overused blame-Bush and obstructionist-Republican talking points continue to remain the staples. Yet, as Obama continues to length his time in office the former becomes less convincing. Likewise, the latter, while probably more effective, fails as the Republicans begin to offer more concrete ideas (for instance at the Health Care Summit). It will nevertheless be interesting to see if or how this strategy changes as November approaches.

For some of the most interesting highlights from Biden’s letter, see below:
  • “After eight years of misguided leadership, our economy was in shambles….”
  • “We were fighting two wars – one without reason, the other without focus….”
  • “After nearly eight years of drift, the President has put in place a strategy for success in Afghanistan.”
  • “And as we saw in Massachusetts, Republicans want to exact a political price for our efforts.”
  • “There are only two possible motivations for their actions… Either they want to return to the destructive policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, or they think the only way they can succeed is by causing us to fail. What this cynical strategy fails to recognize is that if we fail, America fails and the American people pay the price.”
  • “We simply cannot return to George W. Bush’s America."


  1. Josh--

    Remind me again: why is it "tired" to remind voters that Bush left us two unwinnable wars, watched the economy sink into the sea, isolated us from our allies, suffered the worst terrorist attack in American history, instituted torture as policy, etc.? Does this not provide the necessary context for judging Obama's presidency, particularly as so many of his policies are in response to the mess he was handed?

    You speak of blaming Bush, a president who left office with a roughly 32-percent approval rating. Yet that rating is basically exact to that of Jimmy Carter who, 30 years after his (single) term, remains a favorite punching bag of Republicans everywhere (and certainly was throughout Reagan's first term -- check out his SOTU addresses).

    And correct me if I'm wrong, but it wasn't too long ago that both Rudy Giuliani and Mary Matalin outrageously claimed that the Bush administration "inherited" 9/11 from its predecessor.

    You question the political viability of harassing Bush, but polls taken as recently as last month still reveal by comfortable margins that Americans blame the Bush administration for the current catastrophe. It's only logical that the Democrats would play on this sentiment.

    You mention scare tactics in the letter, which surely speaks to the common ugliness inherent in politics. But perhaps you overlooked the recent RNC meme obtained by Politico ( that rails against the fantastical enemy of "socialism" while displaying a cynical contempt for the party's base -- playing on greedy fat cats and hick heartlanders.

    The Democrats will lose seats this election, not just because of health-care and any other faults real or imagined, but because that's what happens to first-term parties in power during midterm elections. Given the stinky economy, it wouldn't shock me if Dems even lost the House this year.

    But despite the opportunity for progress within the Republican Party, there's good reason to believe that many luminous GOP front-runners want to return to the Bush-Cheney years: Palin and Liz Cheney represent, arguably, the two brightest national stars in the party. It's not a reach to equate their rise with a base that wants to return to the, ahem, good old days of the last decade.

    The truth remains: the disastrous era of Bush, of which we are removed by the laughably small margin of only two years, remains a pertinent reminder, not just for Democrats, but for the GOP in humbling itself so that it may build a new brand. I don't see a problem with Democrats reminding voters what came to pass for eight years, especially as we still very much have to live with the consequences.


  2. Karl~

    You outline a number of things that Bush did "wrong" but I simply don't agree he is at fault (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winnable, the economy is much bigger problem than the President, 9/11 was not Bush's fault, etc.). Furthermore, regarding a number of these Obama continues Bush-era policies while simultaneously bashing them.

    But this is besides the point of this discussion. I know it is often debated but I generally do not feel that continuous negative campaigning really works - whichever way it goes. It certainly gets the diehards to vote, but they would have done it anyway. In general I think the indepedents are swayed on what a person has or will do, not on what someone else did or did not do. America is already tiring of the Bush-bashing and I really only think it hurts Obama. By this point at least I think he should be able to campaign on his own record - the fact that he doesn't want to is interesting.

    As for the charges of socialism, I think they're fair. Unfortunately, the talking heads use the term in an inciteful and uneducated fashion. Coming from the right the term is derogatory not sterile. This is unfortunate because while it drums up the base on the right, it clouds the debate that between socialist and capitalist policies in America. I do think we need to more fully discuss whether socialist policies work and/or why capitalist policies are better. But in the academic sense not Red Scare sense.

    But I do agree with your fundemental conclusion that the GOP needs to rebrand itself away from the Bush-Cheney era. Regardless of the successes and failures of those 8 years, the brand is too tarnished to be successful politically. The Dems know this and are doing everything in their power to prevent the GOP from rebranding themselves. This is smart to a point, but can quickly backfire.



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