Waiting for the GOP’s Populist Turn

Wednesday, November 21, 2012
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Image credit: 
the great 8

Dozens of explanations are circulating for why Mitt Romney and a number of Republican Senate candidates lost in the 2012 election.

The Republican Party is supposedly too white, too male, and too old. It purportedly does not reach out to minorities, women, and the young. Romney cared more about job creators rather than employees. The Republicans gratuitously picked social fights on abortion and homosexuality that needlessly alienated women, gays, and the young who otherwise might have supported its more important fiscal and national security agendas.

It apparently did not get out the white working class vote that wished not just to oppose Obama, but also to rally behind a likeable and personable conservative alternative of like nature. With half of the country on some sort of assistance, 47 million now on food stamps, and with disability insurance morphing into a de facto extension of unemployment insurance, too many voters are invested in the welfare state to vote against its purveyors.

So the various post-election analyses came and went.

  the gop's populist turn by victor davis hanson  
  Photo credit: the great 8

All of this post-election recrimination is not new. Since the end of the Reagan presidency a quarter century ago, only two Republicans have won the popular presidential vote—George H. W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush in 2004. In both cases, the father-and-son wealthy scions of an aristocratic dynasty were nevertheless able to portray their liberal opponents as out of touch elites, and in some way unconcerned with the culture and economic challenges that faced most of America.

In 1988, the late—and now infamous—campaign manager Lee Atwater ran a bare-knuckles Bush campaign that successfully reduced Michael Dukakis to a sort of liberal seignior, whose Massachusetts parole policies logically had led to the early release of repeat murderers like Willie Horton, and whose efforts at catch-up populism ended up in ridiculous fashion with Dukakis wearing an ill-fitted helmet trying to look engaged as he clumsily navigated an Abrams tank. The implicit message was that Dukakis was far more at home in the boutique culture of Harvard Square than at a NASCAR event in southern Ohio—at least more so than even the  preppy Bush, who from time to time ate pork-rinds and liked to power-boat at high speeds in choppy waters.

Personality or Policy?

By 2004, the left had successfully caricatured President George W. Bush as a warmonger who got the country bogged down in a hopeless insurgency in Iraq, and as a big-spending conservative hypocrite, who shredded civil liberties to pursue Dick Cheney’s torture-based anti-terrorism witch hunts. In response, Karl Rove and the Bush strategists had, by November 2004, reminded the voters that in comparison to the Texas-accented Bush, who was photographed constantly in jeans chain-sawing scrub brush on his ranch, John Kerry was an out-of-touch Francophile grandee. Kerry, we were advised, seemed more comfortable in one of his wife’s many mansions, in spandex road-biking gear or ridiculously wind surfing in a wet suit. And his Dukakis-like strained efforts to play the common man—often in brand-new L. L. Bean-looking camouflage duck hunting attire—likewise backfired.

When conservative PAC campaign ads replayed Kerry’s youthful anti-Vietnam War testimony to Congress—where he rather pompously in nasal tones pronounced Genghis Khan as “Jhingus Khaan”—the effect was not just that the military veteran Kerry was seen as a Sixties anti-war icon, but, more importantly, that he had been a sort of Harvard snob about it. If voters were both tired of and angry with Bush, enough of them nonetheless found the president far more down-to-earth and personable than they did the sanctimonious, droning Kerry who had married into, rather than created, his fortune.

Yet aside from the folksy Reagan of humble beginnings, and these two isolated successes, no other Republican candidate has managed successfully to play the populist card, as someone who did not just pander to but actually liked the working classes. George H. W. Bush’s reelection campaign of 1992 was sabotaged by the cranky, animated populist, Ross Perot. The latter far better appealed to the third-party antecedents of the Tea Party.

Although many times wealthier than Bush, Perot’s self-made rags-to-riches story, his impromptu show-me charts, and high-pitched twang siphoned off millions of working-class voters. Perot’s third-party and self-destructive candidacy ended up ensuring that Bill Clinton’s own bus-touring populist campaign could win with just 43 percent of the popular vote. Remember, in those days his running mate, Al Gore, was not the contemporary shrill green activist, but a Southern Democratic centrist.

In fact, until the election of Barack Obama, no northern liberal Democratic candidate—not George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, or John Kerry—had won the presidency since John F. Kennedy, who squeaked by Richard Nixon by hook-and-crook. Instead, it had been considered a general rule of thumb that for a liberal Democrat to be elected, he had to have a southern accent to ensure centrists that he was not beholden to the elite liberal northern wing of the party—in other words, a Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Al Gore who won the popular vote in 2000. Barack Obama broke that decades-old rule, both by the novelty of his post-racial mixed heritage, a vast registration and get out the vote effort aimed at new voters, and by perennially running against George W. Bush and a vague privileged “them” in two elections.

All this is not to say that images and personalities matter more than actual agendas, or to slide over the fact that centrism is necessary in the general election, but only to suggest that the Republican candidate can be more easily caricatured: the more they appear rich and part of the aloof 1 percent, the more likely the electorate is going to focus on their accents, clothes, houses, incomes, and net worth rather than their actual policies to grow the economy. Also, given Republicans’ faith in free-markets, they more readily accept inequalities in wealth creation and income to justify a larger more robust economy that results in a higher standard of living for all.

Mitt Romney’s Populism Deficit

In the case of Mitt Romney, he was already damaged by the spring of 2012, after a freewheeling and long Republican primary with serial squabbling debates. Flawed but populist candidates like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum wounded him through likening him to a robber baron who outsourced jobs, avoided taxes, and heartlessly abandoned money-losing companies in his role at Bain Capital. Romney never adequately addressed those charges.

The Obama campaign merely followed that misleading blueprint—albeit vastly energizing it with hundreds of millions of dollars in negative advertising. By September, David Axelrod had defined Romney as nearly responsible for the cancer death of a laid-off worker, as a near felon fudging on his financial disclosures, as an outsourcer who had made millions at the cost of laying off hard-working Americans, and as one whose his ill-gotten gains led to luxury cars, an elevator in his La Jolla mansion, and a glamorous wife with a stable of expensive quarter horses—all distortions, but ones that were nearly impossible to counter.

To the extent that Romney was filmed in a wet suit on a jet-ski, or committed gaffes like offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 on the spot, or was caught shrugging off 47 percent of the population, his own message of self-reliant capitalism would necessarily fall on deaf ears, which is why he lost the election. There should be a rule chiseled in stone that no Republican presidential candidate during the campaign can appear at play in recreation attire. Indeed, one shot of a Republican in golfing attire trumps a gaudy-outfitted Barack Obama playing his 200th round with millionaires and billionaires on the links.

Given his own background and habits, could Romney have done otherwise? After all, the Republican message of lower taxes, less government, reform of entitlements, more individual responsibility, and ample defense spending is easily caricatured by liberals, who expect that about half of the electorate credits Democrats for vast expansions of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, welfare, food stamps, unemployment and disability insurance, and various low-interest loan programs. In that regard, fairly or not, Romney convinced working-class white voters and some conservative minorities that he resembled their uncaring boss more than he offered relief from Barack Obama’s job-killing policies, and that he worried far more about a smaller number of employees than he did about a far larger number of workers.

Romney should have waded into blue states, especially low-income and minority areas—not because he had a real chance of winning a California, New York, or Illinois, but because he could use such occasions to remind all Americans, especially independents and conservative Democrats in swing states, that his agenda was aimed at getting the underclass jobs, empowering the lower middle classes, and giving all Americans more freedom of choice. The Romney economic message should have been aimed not just at job creators but at job seekers: smaller government, he should have argued forcefully, ensures that more people will be hired in the private sector.

Republicans need not necessarily give up on candidates who are wealthy white men in their sixties in favor of candidates who may be easier to market like Marco Rubio, Susan Martinez, or Condoleezza Rice. But to the degree that they nominate men of great wealth and substance, they must be savvy about not allowing them to be caricatured as out of touch plutocrats.

In that sense, opposing blanket amnesty should not be seen as anti-Hispanic, but instead as necessary to ensure that the working American poor, especially unemployed African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, do not have their wages undercut by foreign nationals. Those who wait in line for a legal shot at the American Dream should not be discriminated against by those who cut in line ahead of them. Do we really wish for there to be a vast underclass of exploited green card holders rather than legal immigrants who come with enough skills to have a fighting chance to succeed?

Solar and wind power should have been opposed, not just as Obama administration insider boondoggles and unwise investments, but also as diversions of resources from more exploration of gas and oil on federal lands, which is a proven way to give the unemployed jobs and to lower the cost of power bills and gasoline for average consumers.

Romney might have agreed to higher income tax rates not, like Obama, on those who make over $250,000, but instead on the real millionaires who make over a $1 million—and who statistically are more likely to be Obama supporters. How odd to hear Romney damned for supporting lower taxes for the 1 percent—by the 1 percent of Hollywood film stars, attorneys, and media superstars. He also could have opposed tax breaks for the very wealthy, like elite politicized foundations, and ended government subsidies for large wealthy agribusiness concerns. 

Somehow Big Bird became the poster child for Romney’s opposition to PBS, rather than the huge compensation that public network providers earn in non-competitive and often incestuous business relationships. Nor should elite universities have escaped scrutiny: why has tuition soared above the rate of inflation as campus compensation and perks for the upper 3 percent have fallen on the shoulders of poor students via crushing taxpayer-subsidized loans?

Republicans will fail if they allow Democrats to promote the myth that their present alliance of the very wealthy and the poor is somehow more populist than empowering the middle and upper-middle classes. To become the true populists in our media-driven, electronically wired culture and to counter the Democrats’ art of class warfare, Republicans must not just argue for free-market solutions that help the hard-pressed middle, but they should look and talk—if not live—like them too.