Thanks to Obamacare, Democrats just lost a special election in a Florida House district that President Obama won in 2012. So what do you think vulnerable Democrats in states and districts Obama lost in 2012 are thinking today?
Answer: Run away!
The problem is Democrats can’t run from Obama or Obamacare. Yes, the president is electoral kryptonite in 2014. But Democrats are caught in the Obama trap – unable to either embrace or repudiate their unpopular president and his unpopular health law.
This is precisely the position vulnerable Republicans were in during the 2006 midterm elections, when Democrats retook control of Congress thanks to George W. Bush’s sinking poll numbers. Like vulnerable Democrats today, many vulnerable Republicans wanted to run from Bush in 2006. But they couldn’t, because no matter how low the president dropped in the polls, a solid 25 percent of the electorate stayed intensely loyal to him. Republicans needed that pro-Bush base to turn out in big numbers to avert disaster in the fall.
If they criticized Bush – or were seen as distancing themselves from the president – they would alienate those hard-core conservative voters. But if they did not distance themselves from Bush, they had no chance of winning over the independents they needed to squeak out a narrow victory. They were trapped.
Now Democrats are in a similar predicament. In Florida, Democrat Alex Sink — who nearly won the governorship in 2010, far outraised her opponent and was running ahead in a district Obama carried twice — ended up losing to little-known, former GOP lobbyist David Jolly. Jolly won by painting Sink as a supporter of Obama and Obamacare.
Democrats are saying that their turnout operation failed them in Florida — and the lesson is that they need to boost turnout of their base if they are to win races in swing districts and states in November. That means they can’t distance themselves from Obama. Running from Obama would alienate the very liberal voters they are hoping to energize – because Obama remains intensely popular with the liberal base of his party. But if vulnerable Democrats don’t distance themselves from Obama, they will alienate the independents in the center who see Obamacare as a disaster.
In other words, they are trapped. If they follow the advice of those who say Democrats should double down and launch a full-throated defense of Obamacare, they lose independents. If they follow the advice of those who say Democrats should attack Obamacare, they despirit their base. And if they listen to those who argue they should walk the middle ground and talk about their plans to “fix” Obamacare — precisely the message that failed in Florida — they alienate everyone.
A similar dynamic is in play with red- and purple-state Senate Democrats on the confirmation of some of Obama’s more radical left-wing nominees. Seven Democrats sided with the Fraternal Order of Police and their Republican colleagues to oppose the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, due to his advocacy on behalf of cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Interestingly, Sens. Mary Landrieu, La., Kay Hagan, N.C., Mark Warner, Va., and Mark Begich, Alaska — all vulnerable Democrats running for reelection — were not among them. They stuck with Obama and the base.
Democrats are putting on a brave face, but behind the scenes they are panicking. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week found that 48 percent of Americans say they’re less likely to vote for a candidate who’s a solid supporter of the Obama administration, while just 26 percent say they’re more likely to vote for that candidate.
The big question is: Will Obama have the humility to help House and Senate Democrats by staying out of the limelight? Even if he does, it is not clear it will make any difference. Bush stayed away from battleground states and districts in 2006, but the Republicans lost all the same.
Marc A. Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Bush administration speechwriter.