Reporting from Washington — As campaign foils go, George W. Bush was a very effective one for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, even though his name never appeared on a ballot. But now, as the party seeks to defend the majorities it built based in part on Bush fatigue, Democrats find that invoking the former president's name doesn't pack quite the same punch.
New polling shows that Bush's standing among the electorate remains weak, and that voters for the most part still fault him for the nation's ailing economy. But as President Obama's popularity has stagnated, Democratic strategists say that drawing simple comparisons between the two leaders is not a surefire strategy to move voters their way.
"Our current data brings into question the notion that you can run against Bush and win," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Obviously Bush is not popular. The question is: Does it help Obama to run against the past in debating the future?"
A Quinnipiac survey last week found that Obama's "political honeymoon ended," and put his job approval rating at a new low of 44%. When voters were asked whether he was a better president than Bush, 42% said yes, and 32% said no. The gap was narrower among voters who identify themselves as independents, a potentially troublesome finding for Democrats.
A survey from Gallup released last week found that Bush's personal favorability rating had increased 10 points since the last such poll in 2009. At 45%, it was just 7 points behind Obama's, bringing into question whether attacking the Bush legacy would be very effective.
"All elections are about the future. If Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D- San Francisco] doesn't understand that, she might as well hand over the gavel right now," said Scott Stanzel, a former deputy press secretary for the Bush White House.
Democratic strategists concede that they won't be able to use the former president against Republican candidates as they did in past cycles. But they say candidates can find success if they make an aggressive case about whether voters want to return to the policies the Bush administration pursued.
"I think that voters this year are a little bit too smart for boogeyman. You can't just throw out a name and hope that it's going to have an impact," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Assn.
A recent survey from Benenson Strategy Group, which has polled for the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee, specifically tested the potency of the Bush message. When asked to choose between a candidate who would support the Obama economic policies or one who "will start from scratch with new ideas to shrink government, cut taxes and grow the economy," respondents preferred the latter by more than a 2-1 ratio.
But when the generic conservative message is substituted with asking about a candidate "who will go back to President Bush's economic policies," voters chose a candidate who would support the Obama policies by a 15-point margin.
The challenge for Democrats is that the same poll found that only 25% of voters believed a new Republican majority in Congress would promote "a new economic agenda that is different from George W. Bush's policies."
"It's an opportunity to make sure that voters understand that electing these Republicans will mean a return to the policies of the past," said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Bush has maintained a fairly low profile in his post-presidency. That may change with the release of his autobiography this year. But the planned timing of that release is notable: Nov. 9, one week after the midterm election.