The Democratic Panic

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After a few days of trying to ignore the question, Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate in Georgia, acknowledged on Friday that she had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. By this year’s standards, that’s pretty forthright, especially compared with Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat running for the Senate in Kentucky, who refuses to discuss her presidential vote.

After a few days of trying to ignore the question, Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate in Georgia, acknowledged on Friday that she had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. By this year’s standards, that’s pretty forthright, especially compared with Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat running for the Senate in Kentucky, who refuses to discuss her presidential vote.

Only one Democratic Senate candidate this cycle has been willing to appear with the president on the stump: Gary Peters in Michigan. The others have spent months keeping their distance from Mr. Obama and some of his best policies. Even Ms. Nunn just started running a television ad complaining that an attack ad by her Republican opponent, David Perdue, featured a misleading photo of her and Mr. Obama. The photo was actually taken at an event honoring President George H.W. Bush, she said.

The panicky Democratic flight away from President Obama — and from some of the party’s most important positions — is not a surprise. Mr. Obama remains highly unpopular among white voters, particularly in Southern states where candidates like Ms. Nunn, Ms. Grimes and several others are struggling to establish leads. But one of the reasons for his unpopularity is that nervous members of his own party have done a poor job of defending his policies over the nearly six years of his presidency, allowing a Republican narrative of failure to take hold.

Few voters know that the 2009 stimulus bill contributed heavily to the nation’s economic recovery, saving and creating 2.5 million jobs. Not a word of it is spoken on the campaign trail, where little credit is also given to the White House for months of promising economic news.

Similarly, the Affordable Care Act, one of the most far-reaching and beneficial laws to have been passed by Congress in years, gets little respect even among the Democratic candidates who voted for it. Though none support the Republican position of repeal, most talk about the need to “fix” the health law, as if it were a wreck alongside the road rather than a vehicle providing millions of people with health coverage.

“When I think about the health care law, frustrated, disappointed, you can put a lot of words toward it, but every day I work to try to fix it,” said Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, in a radio ad. (Mr. Begich voted for the law.) In a recent debate, Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat of North Carolina, talked mostly about the “common-sense fixes” she wants to make to the law.

Several Democratic candidates, including Ms. Hagan, Ms. Nunn, and Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, quickly adopted the right-wing talking point that President Obama needs to impose a travel ban on all residents of African countries with Ebola cases, even though most public-health experts say such a ban would be ineffective and could make the situation worse.

Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who has fought loudly against the president’s energy policies, has scurried so far to the right that she even opposes legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, though her leading Republican opponent supports it.

Many of these candidates are running in difficult political environments and are being careful about what they say or don’t say in hopes of preserving Democratic control of the Senate. They run the risk, though, of alienating important constituencies who prefer a party with a spine, especially black voters, who remain very supportive of Mr. Obama. By not standing firmly for their own policies, Democrats send a message to voters that the unending Republican criticism of the president is legitimate. There is much that is going right in this country, and there is still time for Democrats to say so.