Gwen’s Take: The Perils of Ambition, and Does Obama Have Any Coattails?

BY Gwen Ifill  June 4, 2010 at 12:50 PM EDT

On a hot summer day in 2008, I visited the Civil Rights Institute in downtown Birmingham with the man who thought he was going to be Alabama’s first African-American governor.

The time seemed right for an ambitious young lawmaker to make a national political splash, so I was eager to include Congressman Artur Davis in the book I was writing: “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Doubleday, 2009). Davis’ fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Barack Obama, was making waves, and Davis figured he could do the same – even if he was seeking a job once held by segregationist George Wallace.

The general election seemed like it might be a challenge, but the Democrats I talked to in Alabama believed Davis was well positioned to at least win the party nomination.

Artur Davis campaigning in 2010; Photo: Artur Davis on FacebookScratch that. Davis was beaten badly in this week’s Alabama primary, including in majority black counties. He lost most of the counties in his own congressional district. He lost black voters. He lost white voters. He even lost his own polling place. And he was beaten by State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who was 30 points behind in the polls early on and had come close to dropping out of the primary race.

With that, Artur Davis became the latest example of one of the oddest truisms of this political cycle: President Obama appears to have no coattails.

Just ask Arlen Specter, or Martha Coakley or Jon Corzine. Each of these politicians made the calculation that President Obama’s popularity would add some sheen to their own chances. Each was proved resoundingly wrong.

Now, each of them surely failed for different reasons. Specter’s party switch left him without a loyal base in Pennsylvania. After five terms as a Republican senator, Democrats were more used to voting against him than for him.

President Obama traveled to Massachusetts to campaign for the state’s Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was running for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy, but she made fatal miscalculations about what would appeal to voters. Most famously, she misidentified a popular former Red Sox player in baseball-mad Boston.

Corzine – never the most charismatic of politicians — ran into a buzz saw of voter disapproval about state corruption and the economy. Plus, somewhere along the way, the Goldman Sachs imprimatur that made him so attractive when he was first elected, turned into baggage.

Davis apparently learned all the wrong lessons from Obama’s history-making run for president. One of them was that he could count on black voters to support him no matter what. So in much the same way that Obama stiff-armed much of the traditional civil rights leadership (who mostly stuck with Hillary Clinton), Davis turned his back on the leaders who led his state’s most venerable black political organizations.

But here’s what also went wrong. Obama’s candidacy excited voters in a way that Davis’ never did, and the black leaders all eventually came on board for Obama. Part of this is because each man has distinctly different political gifts.

But there is this as well: although Obama energized turnout during Alabama’s party primary, he won only 39 percent of the vote in the general election, and only 10 percent of the white vote. This should have been a warning sign.

Davis decided to step away from the president a bit, and he did — casting votes against Obama’s economic stimulus package and, more significantly, against his health care bill. It appears that in the end this won him no white votes, and lost him even more black votes.

“The voters spoke in a very decisive way across every sector and in every section of the state,” Davis told The Birmingham News after the election results rolled in. “A candidate that fails across-the-board like that obviously needs to find something else productive to do with his life.”

But there is a larger warning Democrats need to read into these outcomes. In a year when jobs are still scarce and oil spills gush uncontained into the Gulf, President Obama will not be riding to anyone’s rescue. And any politician who believes that a 2008 blueprint will work for anyone other than the President himself, might want to — like Davis — take a long look at other career options.

This entry is cross-posted from the Washington Week website. Tune in on Friday for a roundtable discussion on how President Obama is juggling both domestic and international challenges, including the oil spill in the Gulf and new tensions in the Middle East.