WASHINGTON -- With their poll numbers plunging in a jobless recovery, skyrocketing budget deficits, an unpopular health care plan, and their majority teetering on the edge of defeat, Democrats have switched to a novel election strategy: attack the Republicans.
In a campaign strategy that comes directly from the White House high command, Democrats are ditching President Obama's 2008 campaign promise of political reconciliation and attempting to smear the GOP by tying it to the tea party movement.
The decision, announced Wednesday by Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, has failure and desperation written all over it.
The tea party movement, which is not a party and has no central organization, was born in the fiery debate over the health care bill in the summer of 2009 as thousands of dissident voters showed up at town hall meetings to express their opposition. It grew over time as Obama's budget deficits grew to $1.4 trillion last year, then to $1.5 trillion this year. Their common sense response: Enough is enough!
Their chief complaints: The government borrows and spends too much and has gotten too big. The national debt and tax rates have gotten out of control and threaten the country's solvency. Needless agencies and programs should be cut back and some even eliminated. And the Democrats think these people are a threat to the country?
What the White House can't fathom is that many Americans agree with the tea party's message. Listen to what the editors at National Journal's Hotline say about them:
"Many independent voters sympathize with the tea party's broad message of cutting government spending, lower taxes and disaffection with all things Washington. Polls show about one-fourth of voters sympathize with the movement, and nearly all of them say they're planning to vote this fall. The tea party still has a much higher net favorable rating than both Democrats and GOPers, 33/31 in the latest Quinnipiac poll."
But Obama's top political strategists have poll tested a variety of their own issues and found them wanting.
They can't run on the Republicans blocking their agenda. It was passed by Democrats on party-line votes, and voters are strongly opposed to most of it -- from health care, which passed, to cap-and-trade energy taxes, which didn't because the Democrats could not agree on it in the Senate. And a growing number of Democrats in the House now rue the day they supported it.
They can't run on Obama's popularity, because he is unpopular in a number of midterm election battleground states. A recent poll for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that Missouri voters disliked the job he was doing by 57 percent to 34 percent. A whopping 63 percent of independent voters disapproved of his performance. Democrats in major battleground races have avoided appearing with him in their campaigns. Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, the party's Senate nominee, was nowhere to be seen when Obama made two trips to the state earlier this year, though he appeared briefly with him at a party event last month.
In Texas, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White flatly says he will not appear with the president when he comes to the state next week because it might hurt his candidacy.
They can't run on the success of his economic policies, because his $800 billion spending stimulus has been a conspicuous failure at worst and mediocre at best. Obama insists the economy is moving "in the right direction" but a majority of voters disagree; after all, the national unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent and in places like Nevada and elsewhere it's hit 14 percent since the stimulus took effect.
With 15 million Americans unemployed and millions more forced to work part-time, the Democrats cannot talk about the economy with any credibility. So that issue is off the table for them -- but not for the Republicans, who will pound the Democrats with it from now until Nov. 2.
So with nothing else to run on, Democratic party leaders are going on the attack, trying to tie Republicans to the tea party activists whom they say are "out of the political mainstream" and made up of radical elements. But if Democrats think that opposing staggering deficits, tax increases in a recession and health-care mandates that will drive up costs is radical, then which party is really out of the mainstream now?
In fact, Obama and his strategists are now being criticized by some in their own party for abandoning his campaign pledge to tone down divisive rhetoric and seek political reconciliation.
"Rather than being a unifier, Mr. Obama has divided America on the basis of race, class and partisanship," say two pollsters who served former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
"Obama has also cynically divided the country on class lines. He has taken to playing the populist card time and time again," Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen wrote in a blistering op-ed column in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.
Such criticism comes in the wake of growing complaints by Democrats in Congress that after making them take the political heat back home for supporting Obama's unpopular agenda, the White House is now letting them hang out to dry.