Saturday, August 28, 2010

No, It Was NOT All George Bush's Fault

In his August 5th column in The Gazette, Barry Rascovar – the dean of Maryland political analysts – wrote, “When Democrats went to the polls (in 2006), they punished Ehrlich for the failed policies of Republican George W. Bush, who wasn't on the ballot that year. This turned a close election into a 116,000-vote landslide for O'Malley.”

Reading Barry Rascovar’s excellent, always insightful dissections of Maryland politics over the past two decades or so inspired me to jump into the punditry game myself. That said, I respectfully disagree with anyone who perpetuates the myth that Bob Ehrlich lost in 2006 solely because of George W. Bush.

Mr. Rascovar isn’t the only respected pundit to make this claim. In a column which ran in The Gazette in summer 2009, Maryland politico Blair Lee flatly concludes that, “Ehrlich was ousted by a protest vote against George W. Bush.”

Within the Ehrlich camp, the belief that President Bush’s unpopularity was the one and only reason he lost is unassailable orthodoxy. As for me, I take the heretical view that to scapegoat Bush is to oversimplify reality.

Let me illustrate by looking at two possible “blame Bush” scenarios.

The first scenario is that President Bush’s unpopularity simply doomed the campaign. Certainly this was a relevant factor. However, had it been the predominant factor, the governors of Connecticut, Minnesota, Hawaii, and possibly California – all strongly Democratic states – would have been taken out by the same wave.

Additionally, most recent surveys have Ehrlich polling below the 47 percent he achieved in 2006. If President Bush caused Mr. Ehrlich’s loss then, shouldn’t he be enjoying more of a post-Bush bounce now - especially in light of President Obama's own fading popularity?

Further, at the zenith of his popularity in October 2002, President Bush raised $2 million for Ehrlich in Baltimore. Several months later, when Governor Ehrlich analyzed the reasons for his victory at a political dinner in Delaware, President Bush was not credited. If Ehrlich and his team believe Bush’s popularity was not a decisive factor in 2002, is it fair for them to say his unpopularity was the only factor four years later?

So, if Bush’s approval ratings aren’t solely to blame for the loss, then perhaps a second scenario applies. Maybe bad advice rather than bad polls was the real culprit. Perhaps the Bush White House was secretly managing and guiding events in the Ehrlich Administration, maybe through a daily exchange of clandestine phone calls or memos between Karl Rove and various Ehrlich aides eager to benefit from the wisdom of Bush’s architect.

In other words, in addition to everything else he has been blamed for, George W. Bush must have been secretly responsible for the following strategic decisions made by Ehrlich's State House and campaign aides:

• Declining to ask all Glendening political appointees to reapply for their jobs, which triggered other blunders and bad personnel-related decisions and culminated in the hiring/firing scandal;

• Pushing a major development deal involving state-owned land before it had been properly vetted across the administration;

• Refusing to run early TV ads promoting the governor’s achievements in favor of ineffective spots attacking Mayor O’Malley’s record on crime and schools;

• Recommending that a special session of the legislature be called to address medical malpractice reform before determining whether the resulting bill would be something the governor could actually sign (it wasn’t);

• Failing to respond quickly to the BGE rate increase, allowing opponents to frame the issue in a manner that distorted the truth and politically damaged the governor; and

• Emphasizing visits to African American churches and synagogues while taking GOP base voters for granted and ignoring key counties Mr. Ehrlich won big in 2002 yet underperformed in four years later.

I love to visit presidential libraries, and have been to the Nixon, Reagan, and Kennedy libraries on multiple occasions. I can’t wait for the George W. Bush Presidential Library to open in Dallas. Then I will be able to go there and see for myself the evidence of President Bush's hidden hand management of the Ehrlich Administration. But, I have a feeling I am going to be disappointed.

It is human nature to blame major disappointments on factors beyond our immediate control. That has likely influenced the thinking of the former governor and some of his chief aides. In Ehrlich’s case, it is comforting to think that his loss was solely the result of an unstoppable political tsunami. For his aides, it spares them the discomfort and adverse career consequences that would come from looking their boss in the eye and confessing their own mistakes.

It’s time for everyone – pundits and politicos alike – to retire the “blame Bush” argument once and for all. If Ehrlich wins, it won’t be because of Bush’s absence. It will be because, in a year hostile to incumbents, his campaign rejected old assumptions, embraced new energy, and articulated a better, forward looking vision for Maryland than his opponent.

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