The Limitations of Democrats' Politics of Grievance

For years, Republicans have expertly used voter anger to drive turnout. Now their opponents are trying to do the same—but experts are skeptical.

For decades, Republicans have been the undisputed masters of what might be called the politics of grievance, the sowing of disharmony among the electorate in order to drive turnout. Think of Nixon's Silent Majority. Or the Reagan Democrat. Or, more recently, the ceaseless fear-mongering over Obamacare.

But Democrats, increasingly, have resorted to similar tactics. And this year, faced with a difficult midterm map, they've fashioned a strategy built around stoking the fires of resentment among base voters in a bid to make them care about November's elections.

With that strategy comes some risk of overheating. Take the furor over House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's comments last week that opposition to immigration reform was steeped, in part, in racism. And then Representative Steve Israel, the man charged with helping Democrats get elected to the House, piled on over the weekend, saying that, "to a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism."

His remarks came after a week of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accusing Republicans on a daily basis of endorsing paying women less than men, because a bill specifically tailored to allow Democrats to use the issue as a cudgel did what it was designed to do: fail on the floor. The White House hasn't shied away from embracing the strategy, either. Last week, it hosted a carefully timed "Equal Pay Day." It's done the same for issues such as increasing the minimum wage and extending unemployment insurance.

Democrats struck a similar note in 2012, of course, with the cries about a "war on women." But the midterms present a greater messaging challenge. Last month, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sounded a red alert when his surveys suggested that the core of the so-called rising American electorate, the one that propelled Barack Obama to two terms as president, wasn't planning to show up in 2014.

That has forced the party to find reasons for people to come out and vote, and they've selected issues that target slices of the electorate. Hence, equal pay, an issue that especially resonates with single women; the minimum wage, which may animate minority voters; and immigration reform, which galvanizes Hispanics. And likely coming soon to a Reid press availability near you: student-loan modification, teed up for the hard-to-get youth vote.

At the same time, Reid's relentless hammering of the Koch brothers has been, viewed from a distance, less about the influence of money in politics and more about the notion that the rich are prospering while the less fortunate struggle. It's what Democrats did so successfully two years ago in tying Mitt Romney to Bain Capital. All of it has been wrapped in a campaign Democrats say is aimed at ensuring "a fair shot for everyone," directly aimed at disaffected voters who believe they're on the short end. And it may help explain why Pelosi and Israel were so comfortable asserting that parts of the Democratic base are victims of racism.

Nevertheless, Democrats remain hobbled by the lack of a large, unifying message, especially with one of their own in the White House and the economy still struggling. There's nothing to rally the base en masse like George W. Bush and the Iraq War did in 2006, and nothing that motivates large swaths of their voters like opposition to the Affordable Care Act does for conservatives.

Michael McDonald, an expert on voter turnout at George Mason University, is dubious that the Democrats' issue-targeting effort will spark a different mix of midterm voters. "They're basically trying to reengineer the electorate," McDonald said. "History is not on their side." The poor Democratic turnout in a Florida swing district special election last month only seemed to reaffirm that.

But there is a sliver of hope for the party, one that was backed up by Greenberg's research. There is some evidence, McDonald said, that economic issues such as the minimum wage could convince low-income voters who would otherwise stay home to vote. Moreover, the messaging out of Capitol Hill is being augmented by a ground-based get-out-the-vote operation, spearheaded by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that is modeled on the Obama turnout machine.

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina, believes the niche approach could work, that a portion of the electorate in his state feels victimized by the GOP both nationally and locally. (The state Legislature has passed, among other things, a voter-ID law.) "I think here it has some strength. There's real energy on the ground," he said. "You've got this feeling among the Democratic base that they're being gone after."

Meanwhile, Republicans have been eager to paint the Democratic plan as nothing but election-year theater. "Their governing agenda is actually a political document drafted by the campaign staff," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell groused on the Senate floor last week.

But unlike in 2010, there has been a greater effort this cycle to try and compete for the demographic that comprises the Obama coalition, especially women. It was apparent last week in the dispute over the Paycheck Fairness Act, when Republicans talked about their own efforts to help women in the workplace. In Michigan, Terri Lynn Land, considered a strong contender to wrest Carl Levin's seat from Democrats, waded into the equal-pay debate by arguing for workplace flexibility. The Republican National Committee this week launched a program called "14 in '14" which is aimed at engaging and mobilizing women in the 21-to-40 demographic ahead of November.

"We have to be more aggressive in talking to women. We have to ask for their vote," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. "It's not something that we've been doing the last couple of cycles."

The new approach was also evident in remarks made by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential 2016 contender for the GOP nomination, last weekend at a New Hampshire political event. Cruz talked about "victims" of the Obama economy in terms that sounded ripped from the Obama campaign playbook—with a little Harry Reid Koch-baiting mixed in.

"It's young people. It's Hispanics. It's African-Americans. It's single moms," Cruz said. "The rich and powerful, those who walk the corridors of power, are getting fat and happy under the Obama economic agenda."

Cruz's remarks made clear that both sides believe there are swaths of the electorate holding grievances against Washington. The midterms may well be decided by which side can best exploit them.