Dems, it's OK to say Bush is wrong

Spending a few days on the Left Coast gives one insight into the considerable skills of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and also suggests the level of trouble President Bush and the Republicans are in right now. After a risky and failed attempt to change the balance of California politics by taking on nurses, teachers and other public unions with a series of ballot measures designed to curb their power, the Governator has made a distinct left turn.

He’s made a point of emphasizing his differences with the president, especially on issues such as stem cell research, big oil’s role in global warming and Bush’s plan to station National Guard troops on the Mexican border.

He’s made nice with Democratic leaders of the legislature now, working with them to impose the nation’s strictest controls on carbon dioxide emissions, raising the minimum wage after twice vetoing bills increasing the prescription drug benefit for low-income Medicaid recipients.

Not in recent memory has a California Republican run for reelection by veering so far to the left. Schwarzenegger’s opponent, former state party chairman, California treasurer and now Democratic nominee Phil Angelides, has taken to charging that “being a Democrat for two months doesn’t make Schwarzenegger a Democrat,” as he reminds voters that this is the governor who not so long ago embraced George Bush, his war in Iraq and many of his tax and financial policies.

Ahhh, but this is California, where memories are short and reinventing yourself is a long-cherished part of the local lifestyle.

California isn’t the only place Republican candidates for governor seem to be running away from their president. In blue and purple states like Maryland, Massachusetts, Illinois, Hawaii and Connecticut, Republican nominees are breaking with the president and often with their predecessors. Stem cell research is the most common point of demarcation and the issue that plays best with centrists and independents. But the break in some states includes more controversial issues such as abortion, civil unions and environmental controls. Most of these candidates are reaching out to centrist and independent voters while sticking with conservative Republican principles on tax and economic issues.

Now, it is one thing to break with an unpopular president in a run for the statehouse. Candidates for governor can tailor their message to voters in their state and not have to face such troublesome national issues as war and peace. So, how are Democratic messages playing in congressional races? Inside the Beltway it is a common refrain that the president is winning the war on terror in congressional races. It is said that Bush’s recent attempts to tie Iraq to the greater issue of terrorism are cutting Democratic odds of winning at least the House in the November elections.

Traveling the country recently (admittedly not every state, not even a truly representative sample), I’m not so sure that Beltway logic holds. The president’s mismanagement of Katrina, post-invasion Iraq, and a general frustration that we’re still not safe have undermined public confidence. Republicans and the White House still get good marks for fighting terrorism but they seem soft, based as much on hope as a firm belief that someone is in charge.

My sense of the electorate is that Democrats do themselves great harm by being afraid of this issue. They simply need to show they take the threat seriously, that they understand we face an extremist enemy that advocates violence and terrorism. Then challenge the president directly for getting us bogged down in Iraq, where we seem to be losing control despite spending billions of dollars and losing thousands of American lives. A recent Democratic poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner suggests congressional candidates should confront their Republican opponents for not holding the administration responsible for the wasted money, no-bid contracts and lack of body armor for our troops. (A recent 527 commercial running in Virginia does just that to Republican Sen. George Allen with compelling visual power.)

It may well be that Democrats running for Congress should take a cue from many Republicans running for governor. There may be a lot of traction to a message that the Bush administration has messed things up and that we need quickly to get the Iraqis in charge of Iraq, rebuild our frayed alliances with other countries and make America energy-independent. It’s OK to say our president is wrong. Republicans are doing it, and doing well, in gubernatorial races all over America.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com