The Bush Factor
It’s an interesting question. Respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg takes a thorough review of the historical record and demonstrates, quite convincingly, that the experts haven’t the foggiest idea.
Ultimately, there have simply been too few elections that didn’t feature either an incumbent president or a sitting vice president. The subset of those where an unpopular president was in office as a whipping boy for the opposition party is tiny, indeed: The 1952 contest pitting Adlai Stevenson against Dwight Eisenhower. That race obviously doesn’t shed much light since Eisenhower was a uniquely popular, transcendent figure.
One can’t leave a column at “I haven’t a clue,” so Rothenberg draws a tepid conclusion:
In midterms, many Americans vote retrospectively. That is, they base their decisions on past performance. In presidential elections, they tend to look forward, to evaluate the nominees on the basis of how they will perform in office.
But is it reasonable to believe that voters completely disregard past performance — a party’s past performance — when an unpopular president leaves office? Probably not.
After all, Democrats have plenty of tape of Bush making promises that were not kept and asserting truths that turned out not to be true. And they’ll be running against a party that has been defined for the past few years by its leader, the president of the United States. That means the Republican nominee for president will inevitably be the candidate of continuity rather than dramatic change, no matter how passionately he delivers a message of change.
It’s also true, however, that once the GOP has a presidential nominee, he will start to redefine the public’s image of the Republican Party. George W. Bush will seem less relevant, less important. But he will never disappear. That doesn’t doom the Republican nominee, but it puts him in a hole even before the race has begun.
That has the ring of truth to it. Certainly, a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will have an easier time of making the case that they represent a complete break from the Bush administration.
Those running against the current policies would seem to have the advantage, given Bush’s woeful approval ratings. Then again, it may be that the voters actually want the basic outlines of the Bush policy, simply executed more competently and with a more articulate spokesman. If the fictional Jack Bauer were running, after all, he’d probably win.
Further, a platform of “the country has gone to hell in a handcart” is necessarily negative and the candidate offering the more optimistic message almost always wins. The question for the Republicans is whether they have a candidate who can communicate that theme effectively.