Alison Lundergan Grimes is the Todd Akin of 2014.
Like the instantly notorious Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, Grimes has committed a defining political gaffe. Grimes’ refusal to say that she voted for President Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 general elections has some of the same characteristics as Akin’s infamous rape comment: It was telegenic, mockable and universally condemned.
She first refused to say she voted for President Obama in an editorial-board interview with The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal, then, after getting roasted by every political commentator in the country, doubled down during a debate.
She elevated her refusal to high principle. Out of respect for Kentucky’s Constitution and the sanctity of the ballot box, she couldn’t possibly say whether she voted for the man she was a delegate for at the 2012 Democratic Convention. In her own mind, Grimes is the Rosa Parks of the secret ballot.
In 2012, Akin’s statement captured the Republican Party’s vulnerability to “war on women” attacks and how its roster of candidates included too many not-ready-for-prime-time players.
This year, Grimes’ miscue speaks to the president’s unpopularity and to the unseemly desperation of Democratic candidates to get as far away from him as possible.
On Wednesday, the president canceled a campaign trip to meet with his Cabinet to discuss Ebola. Democrats would probably be happy if he sequestered himself in a National Institutes of Health lab trying to work out an effective response all the way till Nov. 4.
It’s not unusual that presidents hinder their parties in the sixth year of their presidencies. What is remarkable is the sodden feeling of disappointment, including among his supporters, about a president who was once taken to have such surpassing political, intellectual and rhetorical gifts. He is the god that failed.
It is the president’s perverse achievement to have fumbled away the Democratic Party’s advantages on the economy and foreign policy to a Republican Party still diminished from the later George W. Bush years. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last month found that on handling the economy, Republicans had a 10-point lead over the Democrats, “their largest in almost two decades,” according to Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal. On foreign policy, Republicans have nearly a 20-point lead.
It’d be nice to think that the work Sens. Mike Lee, Marco Rubio and others are doing to revitalize the GOP policy agenda is bearing fruit, but these findings are the product of President Obama discrediting the Democratic brand rather than Republicans renovating theirs. Although its Senate candidates are hitting issues with resonance in their states, the GOP is largely bereft of a national agenda — except for opposition to President Obama.
Given that his approval rating ranges from 30 to 40 percent in the most contested states this year, it is a marvel that Democratic senators are running so close or, in some cases, ahead. It is a testament to the independent political identities of senators like Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich, to the Democratic Party’s fundraising (for which Obama has actually been able to help), to the power of incumbency, to the smash-mouth negativity of Democratic advertising, and to lots of artful dodging about the president.
It looks as though, for all their tactical shrewdness, the Democratic campaigns won’t be enough. There isn’t an unmistakable Republican wave, but the tide is creeping in the GOP’s direction. If Democrats lose the Senate, it will make even more plain the party’s predicament. Six years into the advent of President Obama, Republicans will hold both houses of Congress, while the Democratic Party has its own budding brand problem. A new Washington Post/ABC poll has Democrats sinking to their lowest rating in 30 years.
Most of the magical powers once attributed to President Obama have proven illusory. Doing more than any other one person to revive the Republican Party, though, is a genuinely impressive feat. Who knows when it will be safe for Alison Lundergan Grimes to say who she voted for again?
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.