Mark Shields: ‘Politics ain’t beanbag’

By Mark Shields

Grantland Rice, a popular American sportswriter of the first half of the 20th century, gave us an often-quoted homily to sportsmanship: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game.” In losing American political campaigns, Rice’s second line is often changed to “he writes not that you won or lost but how you place blame.”

Six years ago, Democratic spirits and prospects were a lot brighter than they are today. Then, many Republicans were ready to blame their party’s imminent loss of the Congress and the White House on their own two-term president, George W. Bush, whose favorable job rating in the Gallup poll by Election Day would fall to only 25 percent. That August in Denver, where Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination, he made this case against his 2008 opponent: “John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. … What does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time?”

Running against a Republican president — whose name was not on the ballot but who had negative poll numbers — worked for the Democrats in 2008, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that when President Obama’s own polling numbers are underwater, the Republicans are asking voters what it says about the judgment of a Democratic incumbent who thinks Obama has been right nearly all the time.

What does surprise and upset more than a few Democrats, especially those fighting political headwinds in states that Mitt Romney easily carried in 2012, is their own president’s insistence on making the 2014 campaign about himself and his record. Recall the Obama call to arms before a friendly Northwestern University crowd in early October: “I’m not on the ballot. … But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot — every single one of them.” For endangered Democrats who want to localize and not nationalize their races, this was totally unhelpful. Obama, while being interviewed on radio by a “known friendly,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, remade the point by referring to 2014 Democratic candidates as his “strong allies” who have supported his agenda in Congress.

The loss of public support must be painful for Obama, who, with Franklin D. Roosevelt, is one of only two Democrats in U.S. history to win a majority of the popular vote in two presidential elections. Remember those heady days of 2008, when Obama won a larger percentage of the white vote than any Democrat — other than incumbent Bill Clinton in 1996 — had in the previous nine presidential elections?

But when asked by Jonathan Martin of The New York Times how President Obama could best help his party this year, the irrepressible Willie Brown — who was the mayor of San Francisco, was a longtime powerful speaker of the California Legislature and is himself an African-American — was brutally frank: “I’d have Obama on an evangelistic schedule of black churches all over the country. I think he really should go to the black base. I don’t think there’s any other place I would trust he wouldn’t create an adverse reaction rather than a positive reaction.”

If Nov. 4 turns out to be a blue-ribbon day for Republicans, President Obama will painfully learn once more the timeless wisdom of Peter Finley Dunne, whose Mr. Dooley, a keen observer of electoral Chicago’s brutality, said, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”


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