Six years into Barack Obama’s presidency, voters are sick of him. Most of them disapprove of his job performance. In state after state, Republicans are tying him around the necks of their Democratic opponents. What’s a poor Democrat to do?
The answer, it seems, is to attach yourself to a different president. If possible, a Republican. Or find another conservative icon to embrace: the last GOP presidential nominee, or the one before that, or some Republican colleague you barely know but once worked with on a fish inspection bill. Here’s a look at the options, as demonstrated in recent candidate debates.
1. Ronald Reagan. He’s dead, and his presidency ended a quarter-century ago, so all that’s left are warm fuzzies and a place on Mt. Rushmore. Republicans talk about him in the same breath as Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. But Democrats are getting in on the love. Colorado’s Sen. Mark Udall used the Gipper to chastise his Republican challenger: “As Ronald Reagan famously put it, facts are stubborn things.” Jack Hatch, the Democratic nominee for governor of Iowa, quoted Reagan in a debate with Republican incumbent Terry Branstad: “You stop lying about me, and I’ll stop telling the truth about you.” In retrospect, Reagan was a policy genius (he “built the right framework to secure the border”) and a model of bipartisanship. “I always admired Ronald Reagan,” says Brad Ashford, the Democratic nominee for Congress in Nebraska’s Second District. “My hope is [to] go back to those days when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan made things happen.”
2. George H.W. Bush. He was only a one-termer, and he didn’t bring down communism, but in a pinch, he’ll do. Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Georgia, has a personal connection to him—she was CEO of his Points of Light Foundation—and she’s milking it for all it’s worth. In a debate last month, she used it to shoot down TV ads that showed her standing next to Obama. The picture, she noted, “was taken at President George H. W. Bush’s library. And if you widen the lens, President George H. W. Bush is there. So I have the experience of working together across the aisle.”
3. George W. Bush. Democrats used to pound him without mercy. Now they’re giving him mouth-to-mouth. When Udall was pressed this week about how often he has sided with Obama, the senator bragged about supporting Bush in Afghanistan and even praised the former president for raising the minimum wage. Those tax cuts for the rich? Never mind. But most of the love in this year’s campaign is for Bush’s immigration policy. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas, says her approach to immigration “is modeled after President George Bush’s plan.” California Gov. Jerry Brown lauds Bush for giving undocumented immigrants access to a fair hearing. In the revisionist account of Bush’s presidency, he was a compassionate pragmatist “torpedoed” by right-wingers.
4. The whole Bush family. Take your pick. Mike Ross, the Democratic nominee for governor of Arkansas, says the Common Core education standards must be fine, since Jeb Bush helped draft them. In Georgia, Nunn responded to a nasty Republican campaign ad—which accused her of funneling money to “organizations linked to terrorists”—by quoting Neil Bush, brother of Jeb and George W. In a statement, Neil called the ad “shameful.” Nunn used the rebuke to depict her opponent as a political bomb-thrower who disrespects America’s most beloved family.
5. Mitt Romney. To defuse public anger over Obamacare, Democrats are taking the Obama out of it. They call it the Affordable Care Act and point out that Romney had the idea first. In a debate this week, Sen. Mark Warner traced its lineage back to Republican politicians who supported an individual mandate 20 years ago. And remember when Democrats savaged Romney for writing off 47 percent of the electorate? That’s so two years ago. North Carolina’s Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan now touts him as a man of the people: “Mitt Romney thinks we should increase the minimum wage.”
6. John McCain. In 2008, Democrats latched onto Obama to escape McCain. Now they’re latching onto McCain to escape Obama. When Republicans accuse them of supporting amnesty or failing to seal the border, Democrats say these charges can’t be true, because McCain shares the same positions. Warner dared his challenger to suggest “that Lindsey Graham and John McCain are not tough enough on the border.” Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Iowa, lectured his opponent: “Sen. Rubio and Sen. McCain did not vote for amnesty.” Ron Barber, the Democratic nominee in Arizona’s second congressional district, suggested that comparing McCain to Obama was an insult to McCain: “My opponent … has called the McCain-Flake bill the Obamacare of immigration. That is mocking our two senior senators!” When you mock both senior senators, that’s really low.
7. Scott Brown. Four years ago, when Brown replaced the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, he was the man Republicans counted on to sink Obamacare. Now the best way to stop Obamacare from sinking your campaign is to make Brown your flotation device. Greg Orman, the independent candidate for U.S. Senate in Kansas, is using Brown to answer complaints about money Orman has given to Democrats. “I actually gave money to Scott Brown in Massachusetts in 2010, precisely because he was the vote that was supposed to prevent the Affordable Care Act from becoming law,” Orman asserted yesterday.
8. Any Republican you ever worked with. For Alaska’s Sen. Mark Begich, the list of buddies includes Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, Marco Rubio of Florida, and John Thune of South Dakota. For Minnesota’s Sen. Al Franken, it extends to Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Dick Lugar of Indiana, Rob Portman of Ohio, David Vitter of Louisiana, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and even Pat Roberts of Kansas, who’s running the angriest, most partisan campaign in the country. “I’ve worked with so many of my Republican colleagues,” says Franken.
9. Bill Clinton. If all else fails, hitch yourself to a Democrat. But don’t let it be Obama, and make the context as far from Obama as possible. That’s how Fred DuVal, the Democratic nominee for governor of Arizona, presented his resume in a debate last month. DuVal talked about “working in the Clinton White House to implement welfare reform” and collecting “over 200 Republican endorsements” for governor. Obama? Never heard of him. We are all McCainsians now.