Open warfare has broken out in the Democratic Party over just how much President Obama’s low approval rating led to a midterm drubbing, and whether the White House did too much, too little, or didn’t care, to reduce his drag on the ticket.
Republicans did everything but obtain search warrants to find out how close their opponents were to President Obama. Some guilt-by-association was inevitable, but instead of accepting it and then pivoting, a bunch of Democratic candidates hemmed and hawed, temporized and made themselves look silly.
When Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Secretary of State running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), was asked by a newspaper editorial board whether she had voted for Obama, she said that because she was the state’s voting administrator, she wanted to uphold the principle of a secret ballot and didn’t want to set a bad example. Or something.
What she could have said was, “Yeah. My party has a history of fighting for the middle class and I’m proud of that.”
As a self-professed Clinton Democrat, Grimes could then have talked about Republican obstructionism during the Clinton administration and how President Clinton ushered in record economic growth and prosperity.
Short, sweet, has the benefit of not mentioning the words “Obama” or “Democratic Party,” and answers the questions.
A week later, she flubbed the same question, a question she knew would be asked of her.
“I’m not going to compromise a constitution right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or (an)other side or the members of the media,” she answered.
Her discovery of an unrecognized constitutional right gave Mitch McConnell permission to suggest that Grimes was deceiving voters about her record. It allowed him to shine a spotlight on the very weakness that Grimes was trying to deflect.
At the debate, here’s what Grimes could have said:
Yeah. I did. And let’s talk about votes. Let’s talk about records. Let’s talk about who’s associated with gridlock, with Washington not working, with an economy that won’t get off the ground.
Whatever Mitch McConnell did for the state a while back, he’s had almost 30 years to fix Washington. What happened in Washington happened on his watch. He hasn’t been able to stand up to President Obama for six years. When I agree with the president, I’ll say so. When I disagree, he’s going to hear it, too. And yes, President Obama has made mistakes. And we’re gonna hold him accountable.
But Mitch McConnell was up there, a stone’s throw from the White House, when the government bailed out the big banks and left homeowners under water. Failed to pass a minimum wage? That’s Mitch McConnell’s Republican Party. Failed to deal with the immigration crisis? That’s not on Barack Obama. That’s on Mitch McConnell’s Republicans. Republicans, under Mitch McConnell, threatened to take the country off a fiscal cliff. Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, financed two wars on the nation’s credit card. Government has grown beyond our wildest imagination. New entitlements? Mitch McConnell was in the Senate leadership. Doesn’t matter whether the president was named Bush or named Obama.
You want to talk about votes? A vote for Mitch McConnell is a vote for everything we hate about Washington. It’s a vote for a guy who can’t cut it. He’s got a proven record of doing nothing. He’s the epitome of why we’re in trouble today.
McConnell could have chosen any number of responses to this, but he’d be defending his record, not attacking Grimes for an association she made.
It was McConnell’s best insight that voters would blame Washington gridlock on the president and his party even if the president and his party were not its primary cause. That connection — Obama’s in power and Washington seems chaotic and out of control — was really hard to break. But the polling swings, even allowing for a Democratic oversampling, showed that voters were willing to give Grimes a chance to break that connection and make her argument.
Instead, she tried to draw attention away from what everyone already knew, and came off as a politician who couldn’t trust voters to be adults.
Her association with Obama was a weakness in Kentucky. It was there from the moment she jumped into the race. It was a given. Her non-denial denial of an undeniable truth gave everyone who watched it a headache. And it made Mitch McConnell look like a genius.
Candidates of both parties should learn from her fumble.