The Bigger Referendum

With his usual clarity, National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein looks at both national political conventions and defines their essence as competing “populist” involving starkly different claims of who represents the biggest threat to the middle class:

All week in Charlotte, Democratic speakers have portrayed Republican nominee Mitt Romney as an insular economic elitist so cosseted by great wealth that he cannot understand or empathize with the struggles of average families. For all the zingers delivered from the podium, that message may have been summarized most succinctly in a new ad President Obama’s campaign released as the convention opened. “The middle class is carrying a heavy load,” the ad begins before unleashing its three-word kicker. “But Mitt Romney doesn’t see it.”

Efforts to humanize Romney consumed much of last week’s Republican convention in Tampa. But in terms of predicting the messages that will shape the fall, the convention’s most revealing aspect may have been the crystallization of the GOP rebuttal to this relentless Democratic accusation that Romney favors the rich over the middle class: The response is to argue that Obama favors the poor and the undeserving over the middle class.

All week in Tampa, Republicans positioned themselves as the defenders of hard-working taxpayers against Obama policies that they alleged would benefit a panoramic array of “undeserving” interests, from welfare recipients (“He believes in government handouts and dependency,” insisted Rick Santorum) to illegal immigrants (he “refuses to protect our citizens from the danger of illegal immigrants,” charged South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley) to public-sector unions enriching themselves at taxpayer expense.

Without question, big parts of this campaign have revolved around please for middle-class folk to “kick up” against wealthy predators demanding still more tax cuts or “kick down” towards those people and their union-thug and bureaucrat buddies.

As Brownstein notes, this focus carries risks for both sides:

These arguments carry complications for each side. Obama’s economic populism is meant to suppress his losses among working-class and older whites but risks alienating better-off white-collar whites that loom larger in the modern Democratic coalition. Romney’s makers-versus-takers construct aims to maximize his margins among those same older and blue-collar whites, but risks further narrowing his appeal to minority voters even as he (and his party) already face catastrophic deficits among them.

The heavy emphasis on cultural issues in Charlotte was almost certainly designed to keep better-off Democrats (particularly women and younger voters) in the coalition, while Republicans sought to counter their highly bleached image and message with a lot of diversity at the podium (if not in the delegations).

Beyond these fairly obvious if sometimes underestimated aspects of the general election campaign, there’s something about the competing appeals to the middle class that’s more of a simple identity test: it gets to competing understandings of who created the economic mess in the first place.

By that I don’t just mean “Barack Obama” or “George W. Bush,” but the people they are thought to represent. Because it is axiomatic to progressives that the housing and financial crises and the Great Recession that ensued were mainly the product of an underregulated Wall Street drunk on debt and greed, they sometimes fail to understand or remember that to most of the conservative movement, it’s equally axiomatic that those people abetted by socialist politicians and government-dependent, rent-seeking bankers were at fault.

This was, lest we forget, the master narrative at the heart of the Tea Party Movement from the very beginning (as dramatized by its original cri de couer, the Santelli Rant): the Alinsky Coalition of irresponsible poor and minority folk, given official advantages by the Community Reinvestment Act and egged on by ACORN and Freddie/Fannie, created a housing bubble that predictably burst and then demanded “relief” in the form of government bailouts and handouts coming right out of the pockets of virtuous white folk (many older people with paid-off mortgages) who saw their wealth dissipating, their tax liabilities (it’s a myth, but many believe it fiercely) going up, and their children and grandchildren losing opportunity. The fact that many serious conservatives are willing to apportion part of the blame to George W. Bush and/or to the banks saved by TARP shouldn’t obscure the fact that the main blame is fixed on those people and their political representatives. Indeed, Bush and the banks are objects of right-wing fury precisely because they cooperated with the poor/minority/socialist shakedown game, or at least did little to fight it.

So the “kick down” efforts of the GOP are not just based on mischaracterizations of Obama’s record as part of the obsessive drive to make the election a “referendum” on the last four years, but also on the powerful beliefs of conservative activists about the period prior to 2009. Because these beliefs are not that widely shared beyond Tea Folk circles, Republicans are vulnerable to the very counter-argument Democrats are seeking to make: we know wealthy predators like Romney and the people financing his campaign are to be feared and avoided because they got us into this mess in the first place. And so the GOP appeal to “kick-down” class resentment has had to get cruder and more racial as the campaign has proceeded, with Obamacare and “gutting welfare reform” presented as a new threat to white middle-class families, even as they represent continuations of the assault on America building for years to the “base.” That’s one reason GOP efforts to half-heartedly suggest they think Obama is feckless rather than evil are not very convincing: to big elements of “the base,” the terrible things he’s done since taking office are exactly what they expected, and will be read into everything he says and does whether or not it makes sense to the non-initiated.

This may provide a slight ace-in-the-hole for Democrats on the margins of the electorate. Their explanation of how things went wrong before and in 2008 is more plausible, and is probably subscribed to quite a bit more than the competing conspiracy theory in which Barack Obama plays an especially lurid role. Middle-class swing voters may well dislike both predatory financial players and welfare recipients, but it’s doubtful a majority think the latter are a more powerful threat to their interests than the former.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.