Democrats' Cold Shoulder Season

Democrats' Cold Shoulder Season

By Carl M. Cannon - November 2, 2014

While campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton visited his fellow Southern Democratic governors, at least those who had publicly endorsed him. A dicey subplot presented itself in Baton Rouge, however, in the person of Edwin W. Edwards, then serving his fourth and final stint as Louisiana’s governor.

Only two months after the Gennifer Flowers scandal had nearly derailed Clinton’s hopes in New Hampshire, the candidate found himself standing beside a colorful rogue known for his spectacular appetites—extramarital adventures and casino gambling, among others. Edwards understood this balancing act, even if Clinton pretended not to, and he rose to the rhetorical challenge, as he always does.

“I’ll endorse this man—or come out against him,” Edwards told the press corps in his Cajun lilt, adding with wink, “whichever helps him more.”

In the 2014 midterm elections, Barack Obama is cast in the Edwards role. Bill Clinton’s part is being played by several imperiled Democratic senators who represent Republican-leaning states. Do they stand with the president, or run away from him? Some of them have tried to do both at the same time.

Their critics are many, but you’ll notice that these vacillating Democrats are taking flak from both directions at once. Loyal liberals fault them for not standing with the president; conservatives tease them for positioning themselves as mavericks when their voting record suggests they are dependable party hacks. No wonder they’re waffling. But this criticism is mostly misplaced. It’s a classic case of blaming the victims.

Distancing yourself in off-year elections from a president whose popularity has waned is a venerable political tactic. Even the sainted Franklin Roosevelt watched in 1938 as some congressional Democrats put space between themselves and the New Deal. In 1946, Harry Truman glumly acceded to Democratic Party Chairman Robert Hannegan's request that he stay off the campaign trail altogether.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush didn’t go that far in 1994 and 2006, respectively, although given what happened in those midterms, perhaps they should have. President Obama has seen this movie himself: It’s called “The 2010 Midterms That Cost the Democrats the House.”

Disinclined to shoulder the blame for Republicans also capturing the Senate, Obama has for the most part acquiesced to a behind-the-scenes role consisting mostly as being the Democrats’ fundraiser-in-chief. But no one likes being a punching bag, especially a person with as much self-regard as Obama, and his vexation has oozed out in the waning days of the campaign.

David Axelrod, Obama’s closest 2008 and 2012 adviser, publicly questioned whether it makes sense for officeholders to contrast themselves with a president of their own party, unless they’ve actively opposed that president’s policies. “You’re going to get tagged with [them] anyway,” he says. Another senior Democratic adviser told Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post about the “exasperation” felt by the president and his White House team.

“He doesn’t think they have any reason to run away from him,” the adviser said. “He thinks there is a strong message there.”

It was relayed to an audience of Denver Democrats last week at a rally for embattled Sen. Mark Udall. The messengers were Michelle Obama and Udall’s Senate colleague Michael Bennet. The message is that under the Obama presidency the economy has rebounded and it’s no time to go back to the policies—and political party—that created the mess.

“The economic statistics they quote are not bogus,” a prominent Colorado Democrat told me. “It’s just that after six years of a stagnant economy, voters don’t yet believe it.”

In any event, it’s hard to distance yourself from an old friend who doesn’t want to be ditched, which is how Obama came off when he said of the Democratic senators fighting for their political lives, “The bottom line is these are all folks who vote with me.”

Such comments were greeted as godsends by Republican operatives already packaging Obama as the running mate of Democrats from Georgia to Alaska. The Democratic candidates’ responses have produced the only comic relief of this campaign season.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich claims to be a buffer between Alaskans and Obama’s policies. “I’ll be a thorn in his ass,” Begich said, a boast that hardly squares with a voting record 98 percent in sync with the White House.

Udall (99 percent) has claimed that he’s “the last person they want to see coming at the White House.” Actually, it’s the other way around: Udall fled Denver when Obama came to town—even though the president was there to raise money for Udall’s campaign.

These senators have another problem besides the president: their party’s own Senate leadership. Harry Reid prohibits amending legislation on the Senate floor and prevents legislation he doesn’t like from coming to a vote. Louisiana incumbent Mary Landrieu, for example, says she favors the Keystone pipeline project bottled up by the administration, but she can’t point to her vote on the issue because Reid hasn’t allowed it to come up.

The most awkward kabuki dance was performed by Kentucky senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. She refuses to say whether she voted for Obama, notwithstanding the fact that she was a delegate at both party conventions where he was nominated.

The same question was put to convicted felon Edwin Edwards, now out of federal prison and running for Congress in Louisiana. He aced it. “I did not vote for Obama,” Edwards replied. “Where I was there were no voting machines.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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