Republicans and Democrats alike seem content to let the November elections hinge on a question the answer to which once seemed obvious to voters: Was the Bush era good for the country?
Though for most of President Obama’s tenure Republicans were eager to run away from that question, they now act as though the answer makes them bulletproof. With the economy still in crisis, and polls showing Republicans poised to pick up many seats this November, GOP leaders have found the nerve to explicitly argue that what the country needs is a return to the same policies that triggered country’s woes in the first place.
“We need to go back to the exact same agenda that is empowering the free enterprise system rather than diminishing it,” said NRCC chairman Pete Sessions on “Meet the Press” Sunday morning.
For Democrats, the comment was a gift — one that they plan to use repeatedly between now and the fall.
“We could not have made the case any clearer than Pete Sessions did that Republicans only want to go back to the failed policies of President Bush,” said DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer.
It’s a daring strategy for Republicans — one which includes explicit arguments for Social Security cuts, deregulation, and the repeal of a broadly popular Wall Street reform bill. And it’s one they hope they can ride to victory.
Having successfully filibustered recent Democratic efforts to further stimulate the economy, the GOP has one big reason to believe they can’t fail to make gains this November: the economy still sucks, badly. But that’s not their only advantage. With the White House expending little energy to argue publicly for further stimulus, and as congressional Democrats come to grips with the fact that they won’t be passing major economy-boosting legislation in time to make a dent in the unemployment rate, the Democratic party remains mired in infighting.
In particular, House Democrats increasingly feel as if the White House hasn’t rallied to their defense, after they put themselves on the line repeatedly to pass controversial legislation. Instead they see promising bills die in the Senate, and watch President Obama rush out to stump for…Democratic Senate candidates.
“It seems like the Senate gets a free pass,” says a Democratic strategist who is critical of the White House’s posture toward the House.
“The House has done everything they’ve ever been asked to do,” the strategist said. “They passed the public option. They past climate change legislation, they made very tough votes, and things just go to the Senate to die and the White House does not put down the hammer…. In the last week, where does [Obama] go, he goes to [stump for Robin] Carnahan [in Missouri] and to [stump for] Harry Reid.”
“The problem is Obama hasn’t been out there nearly as much as he’s needed,” the strategist added. “He can make a difference in a lot of places, and he’s rewarding the Senate.”
The source did note that Vice President Joe Biden has been an extremely reliable surrogate for House members in recent months.
In recent days, Democrats have papered over many of their own internal grievances. But they still exist just below the surface. And the questions remain: Can they be overcome? And if so, can they win an obvious policy argument with Republicans over the next four months if the economy continues to falter.
Late update: As if to give Sessions, his House counterpart, some back up, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn took to C-SPAN this weekend to suggest the Bush agenda deserves a second look.
“Look, I think President Bush’s stock has gone up a lot since he left office,” Cornyn said. “People appreciate his resolve and commitment in the face of a national security threat like 9/11. He had his challenges no doubt. We have learned a lot about things we could have done better as Republicans in terms of fiscal responsibility…I think a lot of people are looking back with a little more — with more fondness on President Bush’s administration, and I think history will treat him well.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.