The White House and congressional Democrats are looking at an unorthodox model to fashion their strategies for the upcoming midterm elections and President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. Remember when Ronald Reagan, up for re-election in 1984, repeated his winning 1980 campaign question "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" while warning that Democrats would return the nation to Jimmy Carter's disastrous economic days? Well, get ready for top Democrats and the president to pick up that theme as they fight to keep the Republicans at the door.
"In 1984, Reagan was still blaming Jimmy Carter and it worked," says a Democratic leadership aide. "We'll not just blame [Bush] but point out that the best indication of what they'll do is what they've done."
It's already started. In campaign speeches, Obama has picked up Reagan's theme of warning voters that Republicans would resume policies that led to the recession. Campaigning recently for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Obama sounded Reagan's call: "This is a choice between the policies that led us into the mess, or the policies that are leading out of the mess," he said. "America doesn't go backwards, we go forwards." [See who donates the most money to Reid's campaign.]
Democratic researchers have been studying Reagan's 1984 speeches and say his convention address offers the best to crib from. For example, when Obama told Reid supporters that "what the other party is counting on is that all of you don't have very good memories," it was a version of this Reagan line: "Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory. Well, let's take them on a little stroll down memory lane."
And, like Reagan, the Democrats think they can herald Obama's victories—reforming healthcare and Wall Street, and saving Detroit—and at the same time warn that the GOP wants to reverse those policies. "We have to sound the alarm," says one adviser. "We will make it a contrast between continuing forward or letting Republicans take us back."
Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee adds: "In his 1984 convention address, Republicans' hero Ronald Reagan blamed Democrats for everything under the sun despite their having the White House for only four of the previous 16 years. Just as Ronald Reagan made that race a choice in a tough economy four years into his presidency, House Democrats are aggressively defining the choice for voters in 2010 about the dangers of going back to Bush."
Will it work? Reagan biographer Craig Shirley doesn't think so. "Reagan was arguing for continuing the good times. Obama will be arguing for continuing the bad times," he says.
But pollster John Zogby sees a win. "The Democrats can indeed use the 1984 Reagan. Reagan's numbers during and after the 1982 recession were very low, and he did lose seats. But the 1984 Democrats had nothing new to say. They were still a party of interests and dominated more by their social activists, and Reagan could indeed run on results and change," he says.