The two-year Democratic campaign to remind voters of the nightmare of the presidency of George W. Bush did not succeed. Need proof? Look to Arkansas. That's where the GOP took over most of the congressional delegation for the first time since 1964 and did it with a first-time candidate named Tim Griffin.
If Griffin's name sparks something in your memory, it should. He spent the aughts working for Bush, for the campaign and the administration. In 2006, the Justice Department accepted the resignation of seven U.S. attorneys; the replacements were more ideologically simpatico, and people noticed. Griffin got one of the plum jobs, but he resigned after six months with a speech worthy of Jerry Maguire in its angry bridge-burning. Public service, said Griffin, was "not worth it."
And now he's going to be a member of the House of Representatives. He drubbed State Sen. Joyce Elliott by 20 points in what, on paper, should be the most Democratic district in Arkansas. * Elliott tried to drape Bush around Griffin's shoulders, especially his involvement—still much disputed—with the Bush re-election campaign's effort to "cage" voter registrations by sending first-class mail to their addresses and seeing if it bounced back.
"It was not hard to explain," she told me, reflecting on the race. "It was absolutely out there. But it absolutely did not take hold with people." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington dubbed Griffin one of the "Crooked Candidates of 2010." Griffin simply called CREW a "fringe left-wing group," and newspapers thwacked Elliott for harping on her opponent's past. Elliott attacked Griffin over the "caging" scandal, so he said she wanted to "make this election about defending ACORN." She fired her guns; the bullets bounced like rubber.
George W. Bush's memoir hits bookstores tomorrow morning, and there's hardly a hint of controversy about it. Two new movies dramatize the scandals of Bush's agonizing second term: the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson drama, Fair Game, and the Jack Abramoff farce, Casino Jack. Both have marquee casts, and the first has Oscar buzz. But neither is generating much popular interest or reflection.
If anything, they miss out on two trends of the midterms: Bush nostalgia and Bush denialism. The two traits are inseperable. The man left office with an approval rating stuck below 30 percent, while he'd matched the intense unpopularity of the departing Richard Nixon in 1974.
Now according to a pre-election poll by Doug Schoen, the Clinton pollster who has spent the last two years jousting with Doug Rasmussen for the job of chief Obama doomsayer, 48 percent of voters feel that Bush was a better president than Obama. Only 43 percent of voters felt the opposite way.
But this is not why Republicans won last week. An NBC News poll from September revealed that 62 percent of voters disliked Bush's economic policies. That was the number on which the Democrats were banking their fall campaign. That was what Barack Obama's Parable of the Slurpee, his tale of how Republicans figuratively enjoyed an iced beverage while the Democrats tried to push the economy out of a figurative ditch, was supposed to exploit.
It didn't work, obviously. In that same September poll lies a clue as to why: Voters did not like Bush's economic policies, but neither did they believe Bush's party would return to them. Fifty-eight percent of voters said they believed that the new breed of Republicans (like Tim Griffin, we assume) would not go back to Bush's policies.
So voters punished Democrats even though, according to the midterm national exit poll, only 23 percent of them blamed Obama for "economic problems," while 29 percent blamed Bush, and 35 percent blamed Wall Street.