Mitt Romney and the New Southern Strategy
The must-read piece of the day is by Tom Edsall of The New York Times and it concerns the Romney-Ryan campaign, which is fast-transforming itself from one that is monomaniacally focused on the poor economy, to one that — more than any presidential campaign in
22 24 years — hopes to win the White House through barely veiled appeals to racial resentment. I’ll return to Edsall soon; but what makes Team Romney’s turn to the dark side especially noteworthy is the degree to which Republican campaign officials are straight-up admitting to the change of course. From a weekend report in the Times:
[I]n a marked change, Mr. Romney has added a harder edge to a message that for most of this year was focused on his business and job-creation credentials, injecting volatile cultural themes into the race….
The strategic shift in the campaign message that has been unfolding in recent weeks reflects a conclusion among Mr. Romney’s advisers that disappointment with Mr. Obama’s economic stewardship is not sufficient to propel Mr. Romney to victory on its own….
The Romney campaign is airing an advertisement falsely charging that Mr. Obama has “quietly announced” plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries, a message Mr. Romney’s aides said resonates with working-class voters who see government as doing nothing for them.
While they should be commended for describing Romney’s welfare charges as false, the Times journalists are being a bit oblique when they describe the anger of white working-class voters stemming from “see[ing] government as doing nothing for them.” That’s accurate, but it’s only half of the calculus. For these voters, it’s not only that government does nothing for them — it’s also that, in their minds, government does a lot for others (chiefly, though not exclusively, poor minorities). In her groundbreaking study of the Tea Party, Harvard’s Theda Skocpol found that Tea Party conservatives were most concerned with — indeed, obsessed with — the prospect of the lazy and undeserving mooching off the hard work and wealth of their more-productive, hardworking fellow citizens.
Writing during one of Gingrich’s ascendant moments in the Republican primary, Skocpol and her co-author note how the former Speaker of the House, who was celebrated by many conservatives for calling President Obama the “food stamp President,” appealed to Tea Party partisans:
Tea Partiers’ most fundamental concern [is] their belief that hardworking American taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for undeserving freeloaders, particularly immigrants, the poor and the young. Young people “just feel like they are entitled,” one member of the Massachusetts Tea Party told us. A Virginia interviewee said that today’s youth “have lost the value of work.”
These views were occasionally tinged with ethnic stereotypes about immigrants “stealing” from tax-funded programs, or minorities with a “plantation mentality.” When Gingrich talks about “inner-city” children having “no habits of working,” he is appealing to a widely held sentiment among the Tea Party faithful.
What Skocpol also found is that Tea Party folks don’t have a problem with all government programs so much as they have a problem with all government programs they see as benefiting someone else. Not shocking to anyone who remembers the “Keep your government hands out of my Medicare!” signs of the Tea Party’s earliest rallies; and anyone looking to explain Romney’s recent ad on Medicare, whose subtextual appeal is best represented by the screen-grabs below (via the Times), need search no further for explanation.
Returning to the must-read Edsall piece, he skillfully lays out the Big Picture dynamic that explains why Romney-Ryan are unveiling their own version of Reagan’s “welfare queen.” Simply put, Republicans, having so alienated African-American and Latino voters, cannot hope to win the White House without benefitting from an historic level of voter-turnout among whites — especially those without a college education. Winning very, very big among white, older, and less-educated voters propelled the GOP to its landslide victory in the 2010 midterms. According to National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein, they’ll need to do it again; anything less than 61 percent of the white vote spells failure for Team Romney. As much as the Republican Party has become the political vehicle of white America, 61 percent is a lot. The last time a GOP nominee did so well was in 1984. But that’s how high the hurdle is for Romney-Ryan — which is why they’re showing themselves willing to go so low.
I call all of this part of a “new southern strategy” in reference to Kevin Phillips’ infamous advice to Richard Nixon, and the Republican Party in general, that the future could be found in the Old Confederacy and its millions of white Democrats who, alienated by the Civil Rights Acts and sundry other anti-Jim Crow initiatives, were ripe for Republican picking. Now, to a significant degree, what we’re seeing from Romney-Ryan is exactly what Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush implemented to great effect: the image of lazy minorities living the high life off of government largesse. But while the first southern strategy was deeply enmeshed with general anxiety over rising crime and urban riots, the new Romney-Ryan version replaces a “law and order” politics with one defined by struggle over finite resources. A politics for The Age of Austerity, as Edsall calls it.
Over the past half-century or so, the original southern strategy served the GOP extremely well. For
20 16 of the 24 years separating Johnson’s victory over Goldwater and Bush’s victory over Dukakis, a Republican was the nation’s President. It’s not as clear today, however, that the new southern strategy will be so long-lived. Jonathan Chait is one of the more prominent advocates of the belief that 2012 represents something of a last gasp for the GOP as currently comprised. Responding to Edsall, he’s written a comparatively sanguine piece about how the appeals to racial resentment we’re now seeing — while undeniably noxious — is something we may never see again. The electoral math simply won’t add up. I’m hesitantly inclined to agree with Chait, primarily because college-educated white voters remain loyal to the President. If not for them, the GOP as we know it could conceivably extend its lifespan by amassing an even larger share of the white vote. In other words: Romney 2012 over and over and over again.
Yet even if the increasingly ugly racial politics of the Republican Party is evidence of a voting coalition in its death throes, there’s little solace to be had in the near-term. There’s reasonable hope that, after this year, our racial politics may get better. But there’s absolute certainty that, from now until November, things are only going to get worse.