As the candidates emerge from their conventions, the central cases they are making against each other are rooted in familiar populist archetypes that can be reduced to just three words.
(Related Analysis: Tenuous Advantage for Obama, by Ronald Brownstein)
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.
As with the Democrats, the Romney team summarized this case most succinctly in a commercial. This time, the revealing ad is one that accuses Obama, amid repeated images of older whites, of looting Medicare to fund his health care reform for the uninsured — a program that, the narrator warns seniors in another powerful three-word kicker, is "not for you."
This Medicare ad, along with another Romney commercial accusing Obama of undermining the work requirements in welfare reform (which has faced near universal criticism from fact-checkers), has generated a firestorm of debate over whether the campaign is seeking to stoke white racial resentments against the first African-American president. Not only Democrats but also some independent observers see such racial "dog-whistling" in the ad; the Romney campaign denies any such intent, and the difference is impossible to irrefutably resolve.
But the question of whether these ads are intended to ignite racial animosities may be somewhat beside the point. The Romney ads on Medicare and welfare, the pledges to protect taxpayers against illegal immigrants and public employee unions, all position the GOP as defending an economically squeezed middle class against a Democratic coalition determined to pick its pockets. That argument might have even more punch if voters envision the beneficiaries of that redistribution as black or brown. But that isn't necessary for this positioning to damage Obama. As veteran GOP consultant Alex Castellanos noted on CNN during the convention, these arguments frame the election as "a contest between takers versus makers."
By suggesting that the middle class is threatened more by federal initiatives that favor the poor than policies that privilege the rich, the GOP is taking a back-to-the-future detour to arguments that helped the party make huge inroads among working-class whites during the era of Ronald Reagan's mythical "welfare queen" in the 1970s and 1980s. "I told my friends I felt I was at the 1980 or 1984 Republican convention," said Democratic consultant Donna Brazile after attending the GOP gathering. "They are basically saying, "˜We are the ones who are working, and the other side is [for] those who are not working, and are draining resources from us.' "
Perhaps because of Romney's own multiple degrees from Harvard, Republicans last week didn't stress another strand of traditional conservative populism: the portrayal of Democrats as the champions of a cultural elite contemptuous of average Americans. But with that exception, the race now features each side wielding the classic populist argument encapsulated in those dueling three-word jabs: "doesn't see it" versus "not for us."
"Going all the way back through the 20th century," notes Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian who has written extensively on populism, "conservatives try to rally the middle-class against the liberal [intellectual] elite and the poor on the bottom, while liberals try to rally the poor, the middle-class, and the working class against the economic elite."
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.
Both sides insist this election will define a new alignment in American politics. But each is trying to build it by following very old grooves.