THE BLOG
11/15/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

A Final Word on 2012: Class Warfare Won

"There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning." -- Warren Buffett.

But not this time.

Amid the flood of analysis about the 2012 election, too little attention has been paid to what may be its most obvious aspect. This was one of the first class warfare elections of the new Gilded Age -- and the middle class won big. (For a trove of analysis, speech excerpts, ads etc. exploring this argument in presidential and key Senate races, go to www.wageclasswar.org, a website created by the Campaign for America's Future.)

Many factors contributed to the president's reelection and unexpected Democratic gains in the Senate. Republicans learned once more the shortcomings of a stale, male, pale Southern-based party in a nation of diversity. The GOP "legitimate rape" caucus helped give away two Senate seats. But the central question of the election was whose side are you on?

This was the first A.O. -- After Occupy -- election; the first presidential election since the Great Recession. It came as more and more Americans are growing aware that the rules are rigged against them, that the few are prospering but the broad middle class is, as Mitt Romney put it, getting crushed.

President Obama won against the odds. Given the lousy economy, vast majorities of voters think the country is on the wrong track and want change. In the election night poll the Campaign for America's Future did with the Democracy Corps, the biggest concern for voters was jobs and the economy. Romney edged Obama on who would do better on the economy and who was better on jobs. But Obama won big -- by a margin three times that of his electoral edge -- on which candidate would better revive the middle class.

This was reflected in voting results. Obama won a majority of voters earning less than $50,000 a year, and lost a majority of those making more than that. Much attention has been paid, sensibly enough, to how Obama consolidated his coalition -- the "rising American electorate" of the young, minorities and single women. These constituted about 48 percent of the electorate and gave Obama his margin. They represent a diverse, socially progressive coalition. But they also took the hardest hit in the recession and have had the hardest time recovering from it.

The Man from Bain

The Republican nominee Mitt Romney was inescapably the candidate of, by and for the 1 percent. He came from the world of finance and carried their agenda. He won the primaries, as Newt Gingrich complained, because he had more billionaires than anyone else.

The class war, ironically, broke out in the Republican primaries. After Romney's victory in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry savaged Romney as a "vulture capitalist," the "man from Bain," who profited from breaking up companies, shipping jobs abroad, and leaving a broken carcass behind. Romney's negatives soared, reaching the highest on record.

And, of course, Romney reinforced the impression with revealing moments that exposed his Yacht Club cluelessness: "corporations are people, my friends," "I like firing people;" elevators for his cars; the $10,000 bet, $375,000 in speaking fees "isn't a lot of money," appealing to Bubba because he knows a lot of NASCAR owners. He secreted his past income tax returns, but the one he revealed exposed a 14 percent tax rate on over $20 million in income, with, in the imitable phrase of former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, his money "wintering in the Cayman Islands and summering in the Swiss Alps."

Needless to say, Obama is neither by temperament nor predilection a populist class warrior. But faced with potential defeat, he turned to what works. The depths of the Obama presidency came in the summer of 2011 after the debt ceiling debacle, in which the president was roughed up by House Tea Party zealots, and emerged looking weak and ineffective.

Obama came back by deciding to stop seeking backroom compromises with people intent on destroying him and to start making his case. In the fall, he put out the American Jobs Act, and stumped across the country demanding that Republicans vote on it. His standing in the polls began to rise. Then Occupy Wall Street exploded, driving America's extreme inequality and rigged system into the debate. In December, the president embraced the frame, traveling to Osawatomie, Kansas revisiting a campaign stop Teddy Roosevelt had made in the first Gilded Age. He indicted the "you're on your own" economics of Republicans while arguing that "This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class."

In the run-up to the election, the president's campaign employed two basic strategies. First, the president consolidated his own coalition. He defended contraception and pay equity while his campaign attacked the Republican "war on women." He reached out to Hispanics by ending the threat of deportation for the Dream kids. He moved to embrace gay marriage. Widely described as socially liberal measures, these were also profoundly bread and butter concerns. Could women do family planning? Could Hispanic children pursue the American dream? Could gay people gain the economic benefits of marriage?

At the same time, the president and his campaign managers made a risky but remarkably successful decision. Their opinion research showed that painting Romney as a flip-flopper had little traction, but the attacks on the vulture capitalist hit home. They committed big money early in key states like Ohio on a negative ad barrage defining Romney as the heartless vulture capitalist from Bain. Both campaigns believe that Romney never really recovered. The president also made ending the Bush tax cuts on the top 2 percent -- asking "millionaires to pay a little more" -- the signature proposal of his campaign.

But rhetoric and attack ads alone would not have sufficed. In critical Ohio and the Midwest the president's rhetoric was reinforced by his policy: his most activist -- and controversial -- intervention to the rescue of the auto industry. Unpopular at the time, opposed by many of his advisors, the auto rescue was risky, painful, and messy. But it became the president's closing argument in key Midwest states, for workers knew that he had their backs when they were in trouble.

When Romney put Rep. Paul Ryan on his ticket, Medicare was elevated in the debate. In a debate Ryan said he welcomed, Republicans labored to portray themselves as the defenders of Medicare, attacking the president for cutting billions out of Medicare to pay for his health care plan. But in the Democracy Corps/CAF poll, the president had a greater margin on who would do better on Medicare than on any other issue.

Of course, the most telling bit of class attack was self-inflicted: Romney's infamous scorn for the "47 percent" of Americans who are "victims" who "don't take responsibility for their lives." Many Americans took the comments, uttered in a private setting before deep pocket donors, as revealing Romney's true feelings. The Obama campaign took full advantage and opened up the largest lead of the campaign going into the first debate.

Who Stands for Change?

The president's listless performance in that debate revealed just how vulnerable he was. Voters wanted change and think the country is on the wrong track. The president's campaign, from its slogan "Forward! to its closing argument, elected to offer little but more of the same. We're on the right track, as Bill Clinton made the case at the Democratic Convention, the president's policies just need more time.

That left Romney an open field to be the candidate of change. But the Bain attacks countered his central argument -- "I'm a businessman; I can fix this." His agenda -- a warmed over stew of conservative staples -- set up Obama to argue that we can't go back to what got us in this mess. The Republican convention, with its disingenuous "We Built This" thematic, gave Romney no boost.

Most important, God, guns and gay people, the socially divisive appeals that Lee Atwater and Karl Rove perfected to divide working people and counter populist appeals, backfired in many cases. The Republican effort to suppress the vote aroused insulted African-American and young voters. The harsh anti-immigrant posturing of the Republican primaries drove Hispanics and Asians to giving Democrats record support. The war on women -- including the revealing debate moment on pay equity -- got women's attention.

The Senate Races

Class warfare also benefited Democrats in Senate races. Elizabeth Warren, the scourge of Wall Street, used a powerful economic populist message to beat Scott Brown, a popular incumbent, Tea Party poster boy, running a smart campaign that sought to label her an elitist "professor," who manipulated affirmative action to get ahead.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown faced over $30 million in outside negative ads, as Karl Rove made him his leading target. He won as a consistent champion of working people, for the auto rescue, against corporate trade accords, for taking on the big banks. Tammy Baldwin, the only openly gay woman in the Congress, took down the favored former Governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, largely by painting him as a lobbyist for special interests divorced from the concerns of working people. And Heidi Heitkamp produced the biggest upset of all in North Dakota, running an old-time plains populist campaign, for Medicare and Social Security, against corporate trade deals, while savaging her opponent for mistreating tenants in his housing projects. (See see ads and speech bits from these races and the presidential race, go to wageclasswar.org, a Web site created by the Campaign for America's Future to document this case.)

The Coming Debate

As many have noted, America's growing diversity and its increasingly socially liberal attitudes were central to the winning coalition. But looking back, we are likely to see this as an early example of the class warfare elections of our new Gilded Age of extreme inequality.

For years, conservatives in both parties have warned against class warfare. Americans, we're told, don't like that divisiveness. They see it as the politics of envy. Inequality should, as Mitt Romney said, only be talked about in back rooms. Nonsense.

This is important because the Young Guns of the House Republican caucus -- backed by a broad elite consensus -- are still threatening to throw more people out of work and blow up the economy if not given concessions that would otherwise be politically unthinkable. This threat now is backed by the ticking "austerity bomb" set by Congress to blow up at the end of the year, as part of the debt ceiling deal.

Candidates are going to have to be clear about which side they are on. Politicians in both parties are now hearing CEOs telling them the only way to defuse the austerity bomb is a deal that cuts Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits in exchange for tax reform that lowers rates and closes loopholes. Before they take that advice, they might just want to look take another look at what the vast majority of Americans expect. They want these core programs protected, and taxes raised on the rich. They want an agreement that generates jobs and growth, not one that knee-caps an already faltering recovery. And they want to know who is fighting for them.

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