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Angry Populism Could Save The GOP

First Posted: 11/15/09 05:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:05 PM ET

Tea Party

Republican strategists are excited about the possibility that the GOP could benefit from a rising tide of populist resentment over the massive government bailout of major banks, insurance companies and auto manufacturers.

Some observers see this dynamic already at work in the intense opposition to President Obama's health care initiative. Populist anger - fanned by voluble conservative talk radio and cable TV shows -- gathered strength this past summer as members of Congress met with furious constituents during the August recess. At one gathering at a Florida community center hosted by Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, for example, attendees started chanting: "Stop the redistribution!" On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters swarmed Washington's streets, railing against Obama's "socialist" agenda and government spending generally.

Republicans hope - and Democrats fear - that a politically significant percentage of voters will come to see the federal government under Democratic control as redistributing tax dollars to "elites" and to the very poor, as the broad middle class is left on its own to face high unemployment, sharply reduced home values, and gutted retirement savings.

This would be very good news for a Republican party that is otherwise facing potentially devastating demographic trends.

While it remains a minority view, some Democratic strategists are particularly worried that the vast sums spent on corporate bailouts have made the administration's health care proposals vulnerable to a right-populist assault based on the perception that Obama is enacting both upwards and downwards economic redistribution as he implements a far-reaching agenda of social engineering.

"The problem stems from TARP [the Troubled Assets Relief Program] and the aid to General Motors and Chrysler," says Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg. Greenberg has extensively studied key, volatile voting constituencies, including Reagan Democrats, "angry white men," and single women. The view of many voters voiced in focus groups, Greenberg says, is that "the unworthy are being taken care of....There is the sense that government is taking care of people who are irresponsible."

"There has been TARP, followed by the stimulus, followed by the GM bailout. Here you have trillions being spent without any microeconomic benefit apparent to the middle class," argues Steve Murphy, cofounder of the Democratic firm, Murphy Putnam Media. "This has not been a situation where [Obama] has been able to provide voters with anything they are looking for in the way of change."

As a consequence, Murphy says, "it has created an intense fiscally conservative environment, especially among independent voters, and Republicans have done an outstanding job taking advantage, speaking in unison effectively."

Along similar lines, a third Democratic consultant, Tom King, contends that "the economy is driving this, people just don't see any results [from the stimulus package]."


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Recent polls show that Republican prospects in 2010 House and Senate races may have improved, with some analysts now suggesting - a hotly disputed view - that the GOP could pick up more than 20 House seats. Political analyst Charlie Cook wrote on September 5:

With 14 months to go before the 2010 midterm election, something could happen to improve the outlook for Democrats. However, wave elections, more often than not, start just like this: the President's ratings plummet; his party loses its advantage on the generic Congressional ballot test; the intensity of opposition-party voters skyrockets; his own party's voters become complacent or even depressed; and independent voters move lopsidedly away. These were the early-warning signs of past wave elections. Seeing them now should terrify Democrats.

In both on-the-record and background comments, Democratic operatives warn that if some improvement in the employment numbers doesn't emerge before the 2010 elections, voters could focus their anger on the failure of the Obama administration's $787 billion economic stimulus package to live up to White House claims. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Peter Orszag of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) both predict that the official unemployment rate will surge to 10% or more at the end of this year or early next year, with OMB adding that the budget deficit will be $1.5 trillion next year. As job losses mount, more out-of-work borrowers are falling behind on payments, with the home foreclosure rate up 33% over the past year.

"The one big thing Obama did that was supposed to help Joe Six-pack was the stimulus, but Joe is still out of work or he can only work part-time. That doesn't help when he's trying to promise the people a rose garden with this health bill," said a Democratic media consultant who asked not to be publicly identified. "He hasn't won their trust, and it shows up in the numbers."

Democrat Begala says he thinks that "if President Obama and the Dems can prove that they're able to govern, they will be in much better shape for the 2010 mid-terms." But he also worries that "Obama is losing altitude among middle-aged, middle-class voters - the independents who were so critical to his success." Begala observes that "Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, are facing a permanent decline in their support among seniors, as Roosevelt seniors [those who came of age during the new Deal] are replaced by Reagan seniors." Obama's promise to cut approximately $600 billion in Medicare spending is likely contributing to disaffection among voters over 65.

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While progressive analysts like Tom Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas, have questioned the viability of the Republican party's top-down coalition strategy -- a strategy seeking to fuse business interests and the concerns of working-to-middle class voters who oppose government spending -- right-populist appeals to low and moderate income whites have been highly effective for much of the past four and a half decades, beginning with Republican opposition to civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

Consider the history: The GOP made sustained inroads among white Southerners beginning in 1964, and went on to win blue-collar whites in the North, by staking out hard-line right-populist stands on affirmative action, bussing, law-and-order, and other racially-freighted issues. Between 1968 and 2004, the Republican party also picked up Catholic and evangelical Protestant backing on a range of conservative social issues including abortion, sexual privacy, school prayer, and non-traditional family arrangements.

In particular, Republicans won Congress in 1994 in large part due to an accelerated exodus of "angry white men" from the Democratic party. That gender gap had first emerged in the election of 1980 and was reinforced as women - particularly single women - turned in large numbers, to the Democrats. According to poll data, between 1990 and 1994, the percentage of white men with high school degrees and no college who voted for Republican Congressional candidates shot up by a striking 20 points.

Between 1968 and 2008 (except for contests with two strong, populist third-party candidates George Wallace and Ross Perot), Republicans consistently won the white vote in presidential elections -- most often winning 55 to 59 percent of it.

In 2006, the Democrats regained Congress, and in 2008 -- with John McCain as the Republican candidate -- the conservative coalition disintegrated. The outcome of those two elections raised serious questions as to whether the Republican strategy had effectively run its course. Between1976 and the early 1990s, winning a solid majority of white voters worked because the non-white share of the electorate remained small, ranging from 11 to 13 percent. Since then, however, with the growing strength of the Hispanic electorate and with stronger black turnout, the minority vote has shot up: in 2004, the non-white vote made up 23 percent of the electorate, and in 2008 it was 26 percent.

Democrat Paul Begala, who helped guide Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, questions whether right-populist strategies will continue to work for the GOP. "They seem more interested in the fringe," Begala says. "Instead of attacking bailouts, for example, they're railing about death panels and birth certificates and socialism. Their base is increasingly wacky, and appealing to them alienates the middle."

Republican Bill Greener, founder of the political consulting firm Greener & Hook, counters: "The chances sure as hell are better using populist (think Reagan) appeals versus traditional GOP approaches (think Bush I and Dole). The opportunity to reach out to middle and lower-income white voters using populist themes and issues would appear to be the best way to add to the coalition. The problem is that unless and until we Republicans are able to define ourselves in ways that make clear there is room at the table for non-whites, we are working on borrowed time. Simple demographics demand that Republicans find a path to attract non-white voters, or prepare ourselves to go the way of the Whigs. A populist (versus what many would call an elitist) message has to be a plus, but, over the long-term is not enough, by itself, to become a true majority party for any length of time."


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