One would expect class warfare attacks in a campaign to come from the left. But Mitt Romney has unexpectedly, if not unsurprisingly, found himself the target of class warfare attacks from none other than Newt Gingrich. Rick Perry has echoed these attacks to a lesser degree. Considering the electoral and political history of the GOP as well as demographic trends these attacks are really not surprising. And they are the of the GOP’s making.
Ironically at the dawn of the 20th century the GOP WAS the party of class politics as well as military expansion. Teddy Roosevelt was a prime example. Teddy used his class arguments to cobble together a coalition of poor and middle class urban voters. Woodrow Wilson’s subsequent election and two terms saw a huge shift in the power structure of the GOP however. New thinkers and politicians took control of the party and it moved into an era of promoting upward mobility and laissez fare politics as well as a less expanionist foreign policy. The failure of Teddy’s third-party movement, the Bull Moose Party, also showcased to the GOP they could only get so far with class politics.
Ever since then the GOP has shunned class politics. The GOP’s politics since have focused more on nurturing and protecting growth for the middle class as well as the wealthy. But just as the GOP has done on race in the last few decades the GOP has allowed Democrats to paint a narrative on class. The GOP’s continued attitude of shunning discussion of the issue has allowed Democrats for example to portray unions as the heart and soul of the middle class. Thus when the GOP attacks unions or tries to do CBA reform they are attacking the middle class only to protect the rich. Same with welfare and entitlements. If these programs are even touched by the GOP then it is an attack on the middle class.
Even when the GOP stands by its political orthodoxy of “No new taxes” whether it be on the wealthy or the poor they cannot win. They are consistently painted as only protecting the wealthy and not caring about, pardon the expression, the 99%.
There is also another factor to consider. The old Democratic coalition of the early to late 20th century has collapsed. What was once primarily a blue-collar white party has due to time and demographics become a largely female, minority and technocratic based party. The old blue-collar elements of the Democratic party, even rank and file union members, are in ever greater numbers finding a home within the GOP.
These voters were attracted to the Democratic party because of its emphasis on protecting the stability of the middle class which at that time was the blue-collar worker. But as more of the population becomes educated and diverse racially blue-collar workers have seen their clout shrink within the Democratic party. Increasingly their interests are at odds with Democratic leadership which is appealing to urban minorities and the new technocrats of its base. Thus these voters have migrated into the GOP. And they are numerous in South Carolina and Florida, the next stops on the GOP primary calender.
Only two GOP nominees and one likely nominee can be said to have entered this new dynamic (starting in 2000). Each had different backgrounds and appeal. George Bush was a Harvard educated southerner born with a silver spoon in his hand. Yet Bush had also served in the military and during the 2000 campaign promised to protect the middle class with tariffs on a variety of goods from China. In 2008 John McCain won the GOP nomination. Like Bush he had also served in the military but his politics were far less southern and more moderate.
In 2012 the GOP for the first time had a crop of candidates who could appeal to these voters. Rick Santorum’s zeal for social issues. Rick Perry’s southern style and gung-ho style. Tim Pawlenty’s blue-collar background in Minnesota. Herman Cain’s love for free markets and ability to talk about class. The only candidates who really could not appeal to these voters were Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann. Well Bachmann is out and Paul does not have a shot to win the nomination. That leaves Romney riding wins in IA and NH. The other candidates have apparently taken notice.
Thus an angry and reeling Newt Gingrich lobbed a class warfare attack on Romney for his time at Bain Capital. This being where Romney DID dismantle and sell off companies. But he did so at the behest of said sold-off or restructured companies. Also considering middle class, blue-collar jobs are being shipped overseas to cheaper Asian markets everyday it is no surprise Gingrich, and later Perry, lobbed class warfare attacks at Romney. Romney at just about every level fails to connect with these voters whether it be on a social or fiscal issues.
Still this may not be for nothing. Romney may find a way to deflect the attacks with the help of conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and at the same time find a way to appeal to blue-collar voters. Perhaps Romney can use these attacks to illuminate what he did at Bain Capital which was not to ship jobs overseas. All he did was help struggling companies and owners either restructure their enterprises or pay off their debts.
There still remain regional, ideological and class schisms within the GOP. In Iowa and New Hampshire attacks like these would not resonate. But South Carolina may be different. The state is largely rural and blue-collar. It is more conservative socially than New Hampshire and fiscally than Iowa. And regionally voters of the state share a certain distrust of Northeastern politicians. Adding class into the discussion here is more natural than not in actuality.
In short the class attacks on Romney are of the party’s making. The refusal of the GOP to even discuss class politics has allowed Democrats to paint a national narrative on the issue. Furthermore the GOP’s refusal to discuss this issue has allowed schisms to form within their party as new voters who once followed Democrats on the issue move into the GOP.
Romney may not appeal to these voters on any particular level but he will likely be the eventual GOP nominee. And that means he and the GOP will have to find a way to migrate these troubled waters in 2012. What Gingrich and Perry brought up is nothing compared to what Obama and the left will unload on Romney. The GOP cannot solve the problem they have created in one election. But they can use the attacks on Romney and backlash against Gingrich and Perry as a first-step to finally starting a real conservative discussion on the issue.