Suddenly, it's Barack Obama vs. George W. Bush. Neither man is on the ballot this fall, of course, but the Democrats are acting as if they will be. And the Republicans are being forced to play defense and disconnect themselves as much as they can from their unpopular former president. [See a slide show of 5 Reasons Obama is the Same as Bush.]
The return of the "Bush factor" was underscored last week when the Democratic National Committee seized on statements by two key Republicans and argued that any GOP takeover of the House or Senate in the November elections would result in a return of Bush's policies. One target was Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He told a television interviewer, "We need to go back to the exact agenda that is empowering the free enterprise system rather than diminishing it." He didn't specifically call for a return to Bush's policies, but the DNC said that's what he meant. Democratic strategists argued that Sessions's comments showed that the GOP has no new ideas beyond what Bush offered. The DNC also attacked televised comments by Sen. John Cornyn, also of Texas and chairman of the GOP senatorial campaign committee, in which he was unable to come up with any differences between the current GOP agenda and Bush's. [See which industries give the most to Cornyn.]
DNC chairman Tim Kaine said, "The men in charge of Republican campaigns made it crystal clear what Republican candidates plan to do if elected—take us backward." The DNC followed up with a Web video entitled "Exact Same Agenda." The narrator quotes Sessions and adds: "The exact same agenda that cost 8 million Americans their jobs."
Behind this dustup is a growing realization among Democrats that there is still plenty of mileage in bashing Bush, even though he has been out of office for 18 months. Fifty-three percent of voters blame him for the sad state of today's economy, according to a new survey by Third Way, a self-described moderate think tank. And by 46 percent to 32 percent, Americans say Obama's economic ideas are better than Bush's. Among independents, a key swing vote in many races, the margin is 39 to 30 in Obama's favor. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Republicans say all this is unfair, that Obama needs to take responsibility for current conditions and not blame everything on his predecessor. But each party has a track record of pointing fingers at unpopular past presidents. The GOP did it for years with Democrat Jimmy Carter, who presided over hard times, and the Democrats did it for two generations with Republican Herbert Hoover, who was in office at the start of the Depression. Now the Democrats see an opening to frame the fall election as what one party strategist called "a choice between Obama and Bush, rather than a referendum on the [current] president's policies."
Of course, there are still positive signs for the GOP. Republicans hold a 3-point edge in the generic congressional ballot that offers a general choice between Democrats or Republicans, according to Third Way polling. And most voters believe in the private sector rather than government as the engine to best generate a recovery, which is considered a GOP article of faith. Perhaps most important, two thirds of Americans see congressional Republicans and their economic ideas as "new and completely separate from those of the former president," according to the analysis by Third Way.
But Jon Cowan, the think tank's president, says this might be a tentative conclusion, and that if Democrats can tether the GOP to Bush, they can maintain control of Congress. "The November elections could completely turn on whether voters believe that Republican ideas are new or a return to the Bush policies," Cowan says. "Even in this economic environment, Republicans cannot win if they are associated with the economic policies of the former president." And that's just what the Democrats are trying to do. Making the elections a contest between Obama and Bush may be the Democrats' only hope of hanging onto their majorities.
There's one other presidential factor at work. It turns out that former President Bill Clinton, who left office in January 2001 with the country at peace and the budget in surplus, is more well-liked than either Obama or Bush. Sixty-one percent of Americans view him favorably, compared to 52 percent for Obama and 45 percent for Bush, according to Gallup. If the Democrats send the "comeback kid" into key swing districts, he could provide the margin of victory.