Democrats and ‘Poisoned’ Politics

Incumbents launch personal attacks to divert attention from the economy’s poor performance.

In March 2004, when Barack Obama was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the Illinois Democratic primary, he excoriated President George W. Bush for creating a “jobless recovery.” The month he said that, 334,000 new jobs were created—none of them temporary Census ones—and unemployment was 5.8%.

That was then. Now the unemployment rate is 9.6%, and tomorrow’s jobs report is unlikely to be much better.

Many other Democrats piled on Mr. Bush at the time. “Mr. President, where are the jobs?” Rep. Nancy Pelosi asked on CNN in October 2003. “The American people will not settle for—nor should the Republicans celebrate—a jobless recovery.” That month saw 203,000 new jobs and 6% unemployment. Her party would kill for such a rate today.

Instead, they will be killed at the polls. This election’s top issue is the economy, and the Democrats are being held accountable for its poor performance. After all, the party controls the White House and Congress and passed all the spending and stimulus measures it could dream up.

Last month, the Pew poll found that Americans thought Republicans would be better at improving “the job situation” than the Democrats by a 40% to 35% margin—a 16-point shift since 2006. Historically, Republicans have done well in congressional races when the GOP has closed to within five points on the economy and jobs. Republicans were also more trusted to “reduce [the] budget deficit” than the Democrats, by 44% to 29%.

How did the Democrats get here? By passing bad legislation. How bad? Not a single vulnerable House Democrat is featuring the stimulus bill in campaign ads—except for those Democrats who opposed it. Nor do any extol cap and trade in television spots.

Only one targeted Democratic Senator (Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold) and three Democratic Congressmen (North Dakota’s Earl Pomeroy, Nevada’s Dina Titus and New York’s Steve Israel) feature ObamaCare in their advertising. But they talk only about the best poll-tested elements, such as no denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Despite the encouragement of some ivory-tower liberal commentators, these politicians understand the toxicity of the bill’s totality and its price tag.

Democratic voters are noticeably less enthusiastic than Republican ones. Pew found last week that 83% of Republicans said they would “definitely” vote, compared to 69% of Democrats. The GOP’s 14-point advantage is twice as big as in 1994.

Independents are energized: 65% said they would “definitely” vote, the highest since Pew began asking the question in 1994. According to a Pew poll released Sept. 23, independents prefer the GOP by 49% to 36%, a 31-point swing since the 2006 midterms.

Given this dismal picture, Democrats believe they have only one option: a thermonuclear assault on their GOP opponents, which means raising questions about their character, distorting their views, and making outlandish claims.

Many Democratic incumbents now routinely assert in their ads that Republicans who pledge not to raise taxes support shipping jobs overseas—a claim that the nonpartisan has found to be false. Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader featured a senior citizen saying that if Republican challenger Scott Bruun “had his way, I’d be out on the street.” Arizona Democrat Harry Mitchell accused Republican David Schweikert of being a slumlord who tried to evict a 12-year-old child. He couldn’t produce the boy. Virginia’s Gerry Connolly attacked Keith Fimian, his GOP challenger, for working against women’s rights because he was a member of Legatus, a respected Catholic lay organization that opposes abortion.

In a debate last month, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.) accused Republican challenger John Boozman of having voted in Congress to let an incestuous rapist father sue a physician who performed an abortion on the daughter the father had raped. Mr. Boozman had no idea what Ms. Lincoln was talking about, and when challenged she couldn’t back up her charge. Mr. Boozman now leads by 19 points in the Real Clear Politics average.

Personal attacks generally don’t work unless they’re seen as fair, credible and pertinent. Voters must think the character shortcomings are both persistent and relevant. If not, the assaults will fail, even backfire.

The Democrats’ reliance on this strategy may rescue a few otherwise lost campaigns. But it will further besmirch the reputations of the Democratic Party and its leader, Mr. Obama. The man who complained on the night of his election about the “pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long” is complicit as candidate after candidate in his party adds arsenic to the nation’s political well.

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).


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