10/15/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

History Shows Voters Make Statements in Midterm Elections

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Ever hear of "morphing" ads? Republican candidates ran them in the 1994 midterm campaign, when President Clinton was intensely controversial (health care reform, gays in the military, gun control laws). The ads showed photos of Democratic candidates electronically "morphing" into the face of Bill Clinton. A narrator warned, ominously, that if you voted for the Democrat, you were really voting for Clinton.

Apparently, the ads worked. Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

This year, Republicans are trying to turn every congressional race into a referendum on President Obama. But we're not likely to see any "morphing" ads. Republicans would open themselves up to the charge of racism if they "morphed" their Democratic opponents into a black man. It would run the risk of outraging African-Americans and driving them to the polls.

Ironically, it was President Obama who nationalized this year's campaign when he said at Northwestern University, "I am not on the ballot this fall... But make no mistake -- these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them." Sure enough, the remark immediately started showing up in Republican campaign ads. Make no mistake: President Obama is now the main issue in the 2014 campaign.

Republicans are trying to put together all of the country's current problems -- illegal immigration, Islamic radicalism, the Ebola virus -- into one big anti-Obama package. The Republican Senate candidate in North Carolina said in a debate, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have an Ebola outbreak, we have had bad actors who can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it."

The campaign may work. Why? Because President Obama has the image of an ineffectual leader. He gets no credit for the improving economy. The unemployment rate has fallen faster over the past two years than in any previous midterm election cycle since World War II, but Obama's approval rating on the economy was only 40 percent in last month's New York Times-CBS News poll. He is taking military action in the Middle East, but his job approval on terrorism was 41 percent. The president's inaction on immigration has demoralized his base and infuriated his critics at the same time.

What the country has discovered about President Obama is something it has known all along: He is cerebral and deliberative. Not bold and reckless like George W. Bush. That's why Obama got elected in the first place. Voters wanted something totally different from Bush. And they got it.

The party out of office wins by finding out what voters want that they are not getting from the incumbent. And then finding a candidate who can market it.
  • In 1960, after eight years of Eisenhower, we wanted youth, dynamism and vigor -- a leader who could get the country moving again: Kennedy.
  • In 1968, after the turmoil of the 1960s, we wanted an experienced insider who could restore order: Nixon.
  • In 1976, after Watergate, we wanted a preacher who would never lie to us: Carter.
  • In 1980, after four years of Carter, we wanted strong leadership: Reagan.
  • In 1992, when the first President Bush seemed out of touch with the pain ordinary Americans were feeling, we wanted empathy: Clinton.
  • In 2000, after the Lewinsky scandal, we wanted a leader with good character: George W. Bush was acceptable.
  • In 2008, Democrats sold a leader who was thoughtful and cautious: Obama.

I call it the Law of the Missing Imperative. Sometimes it doesn't work, usually because the timing is wrong.

  • In 1984, Walter Mondale ran on fairness. That's a tough sell when it's "Morning in America."
  • In 1988, Michael Dukakis tried to sell competence. But voters had no reason to doubt Vice President Bush's competence.
  • In 1996, Bob Dole ran on character ("A better man, for a better America"). But the Lewinsky scandal had not yet happened.
  • In 2004, John Kerry offered strength after 9/11. But we already had a strong president.
  • In 2012, Mitt Romney tried to sell smaller government. But he threatened the safety net and managed to insult the "47%" of Americans who depended on government.

President Obama is the un-Bush. What voters are missing right now are the qualities they once valued in George W. Bush: resolve and toughness in the face of adversity. As former defense secretary Leon Panetta writes in his memoirs, President Obama "too often relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." It is impossible to imagine George W. Bush, a man who exhibited no intellectual curiosity, as a professor.

Obama's predicament is not unlike that of President Carter in the 1970s. We elected Carter because, after Watergate, the country wanted a preacher. We got one and discovered that a preacher may not be tough enough for the job.

Voters use midterm elections to make a statement -- against the Iraq war in 2006, against Obamacare in 2010. Midterms allow them to show displeasure with a president without throwing him out of office. In 1994, Democrats suffered a huge setback when every Democratic candidate became a "morph" of President Clinton. Funny thing, though. Two years later, they re-elected the "morph."