In a recent post, I defended the proposition that Democrats should spend a great deal of time on this year’s campaign trail drawing attention to the past failures, present zaniness, and future emptiness of Republican policies. While voters say they don’t like what they perceive to be “negative campaigning,” comparative campaigning is always in order.
Now Ron Brownstein reports that Democrats from the White House on down have every intention of making Republicans an issue in this campaign. Here’s what David Axelrod has to say:
“It’s almost impossible to win a referendum on yourself,” Axelrod insisted. “And the Republicans would like this to be a referendum. It’s not going to be a referendum.”
Naturally, Republicans disagree:
Responding to Axelrod’s arguments, Republican pollster Glen Bolger said he was dubious that Democrats will succeed in shifting the focus toward the GOP. “It’s pretty unlikely,” said Bolger, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, which polls widely for GOP candidates. “Basically, that is something that the party that is under the gun always says, and it is never the case. [In a midterm election] it is about who is in control and how people feel about how things are going in the country
Now obviously the “out” party in hard times wants every election to be a referendum, and the “in” party wants it to be about the “two futures” the two parties stand for. And when the hard times actually developed under the “out” party’s management, the past is an issue as well.
But Bolger’s idea that his own party’s character, record and agenda don’t matter is a sheer unsupported assertion.
Sometimes people, and particularly Republicans, making the “referendum” argument cite 1980, and Ronald Reagan’s famous formulation during the one presidential debate, that voters should ask themselves if “you are better off than you were four years ago,” as though it represented a magical incantation or reflected an iron law of politics. Nicely framed as it was, Reagan’s “referendum” plea would not have mattered at all if it hadn’t coincided with a political moment when swing voters had concluded he was a credible president with a potentially successful agenda. Until the very end, the 1980 race was actually very close, despite all of Jimmy Carter’s political troubles, which make Barack Obama’s look like child’s play. Moreover, Carter didn’t have an immediate, failed, unpopular Republican administration in the national rear-view mirror to point towards; Nixon had been out of office for six years.
Voters don’t “always” react in a particular way to hard times, and elections aren’t “always” referenda on the party in power at that particular moment: For a hundred years after the Civil War, many millions of Americans still voted for the party that was “right” about that conflict. There’s no reason on earth that Democrats can’t share some responsibility for the current economic situation–not to mention two wars–with the GOP, and insist on asking where each party would lead the country if victorious.