One of the least-recognized and most common electoral strategies by the Republican Party is to run elections around left-wing themes. For instance, in 2010, much of the ad spending by outside GOP-aligned groups, as well as explicit party communications, focused on health care. The Republican attack ads didn’t center for the most part on the mandate, or anything like that, but on cuts to Medicare. The GOP recognized that voters, especially senior voters, like Medicare. More importantly, voters understand Medicare, so when the Democrats slashed excessive subsidies to private versions of Medicare to bring them in line with the public sector version, the Republicans had an attack line that worked. It’s pure populism.
And populism usually does work, at least for elections. Elites often on both sides try to run away from voters; in general party elites don’t like their voters, and those elites, who nest in a densely networked set of PR firms, lobbying firms, government agencies, unions, and corporations, are backed by highly capitalized interest groups. But when the election comes around, they get back to whatever kind of populist narrative they can salvage. Take this current President – he didn’t just run on Hope and Change, but on economic fairness. In fact, I was combing through the Audacity of Hope, and I noticed that Obama actually used the 99%/1% Occupy Wall Street-style rhetoric in 2006. (Note that messaging never really changes – the full title of his book was “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”, and this year, one key Democratic surrogate is Van Jones, who just authored a best-selling election-year release timed book titled “Rebuild the Dream”.)
Here’s Obama, in 2006, on elections and inequality:
Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means—law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate…
Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.
In 2008, left-wing populism worked for Barack Obama and the Democrats. In 2010, with the Medicare attack line, left-wing populism worked for the Republicans. The irony is that the Republicans attacked the Democrats successfully by portraying an expansion of the health insurance system as a cut to that health insurance system. This was not as dishonest an attack as it seems on first blush – the Democrats really did reduce funding for private versions of Medicare, and most of the expanded coverage theoretically kicked in as of 2014. So even though voters might (emphasis *might*) like what they would eventually get, they didn’t get it in time for the election. I’m curious as to whether the GOP will do the same with inequality, especially considering Mitt Romney’s obvious personal vulnerability on the question. I’m starting to see a few people in DC notice that the Obama administration’s policies, despite some vaguely populist sounding moves like the recently defeated Buffett Rule, are not obviously different than George W. Bush’s in terms of their economic outcome. His policies in terms of their impact may even be worse. Here’s Michael Hirsh, with National Journal.
Despite Barack Obama’s populist rhetoric about restoring the middle class, imposing a gimmicky “Buffett Rule” against millionaires and such, the wealthiest one percent in the country have actually made out better, in percentage terms, during Obama’s “recovery” of 2009-2010 than they did from 2002-07 under George W. Bush.
“The number of New Yorkers classified as poor in 2010 increased by nearly 100,000 from the year before, raising the poverty rate by 1.3 percentage points to 21 percent — the highest level and the largest year-to-year increase since the city adopted a more detailed definition of poverty in 2005.”..
The main culprit is the sluggish economy, the Obama economy if you will: “The recession and the sluggish recovery have taken a particularly harsh toll on children, with more than one in four under 18 living in poverty, according to an analysis by the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity that will be released on Tuesday.” The city reported that without federal and state aid, the poverty situation would have been worse. (The report indicates that New York City and the feds use different methods of calculating poverty.)…
The Buffett rule is for left-leaning elites who think voters are dolts and easily baited into becoming envious of others. It is for the economically illiterate who imagine that by taking more money from a tiny sliver of the population that already contributes a huge portion of the country’s taxes we will do. . . well do what, exactly? Not anything to address the debt. Not create jobs that might lift up middle class and poverty-stricken Americans. Not promote school choice or any other effective anti-poverty effort.
In fact, the poverty rate – the worst kind of income inequality – has increased under this president. Last fall figures showed we went from a poverty rate of 14.3 to 15.1 percent. The president, however, continues to burden employers with new taxes and regulations, increase the cost of labor for job creators (with Obamacare, for example), oppose school choice, and refuse to entertain a Republican plan to make Medicare more progressive. There’s a pretty good argument that the best thing America could do for income inequality would be to get a new president and a new set of policies.
I don’t know if this line of argument will be successful. The Republicans aren’t particularly good at running on inequality, though there was a flare-up in the Republican nomination fight between Gingrich and Romney. Their funders hate it, it just doesn’t work naturally with their party infrastructure because their surrogates believe in political and economic inequality as a virtue. But they are also naturally populist in terms of disliking liberal elitism.
It’ll be interesting to see how this theme plays out in the election. With the Buffett Rule, it’s clear that the Obama campaign will make it a centerpiece. Yet, I’ve noted that liberals are having a really tough time electorally these days, from Eric Schneiderman’s unpopular polling numbers to savage defeats in primaries among liberal votes. Even though it’s a really good time to be running on inequality, the rhetoric from both parties is remarkably empty, and voters seem to know it. The Republicans are good at taking such moments, and cynically putting forward arguments about why their opponents cannot be trusted on an issue they themselves are going to make worse. They often point to empty rhetoric, or policy failures, as evidence. And in this case, it’s just not hard to make a case for significant policy failure or empty rhetoric. So far, I haven’t seen the GOP take advantage of this, except for one inaccurate ad by a 501c(4) group. We’ll see what happens now that Romney is consolidating the party behind him.