Lee Atwater, who mentored many of the Republican Party’s most senior operatives, used to say that his party tends to win elections when they are framed around populist social issues and that Democrats win when elections turn on populist economic ones. By “populist,” Atwater meant those issues that tend to pit the masses against the “elites,” a frame that can work for social and economic issues.
Opposition to same-sex marriage can be described as defending the sacred institution of marriage against the liberal elites who would disgrace it; similarly, middle-class tax breaks can be marketed as recompense from the avarice of the rich. Social vs. class war is a simplistic but still useful way to summarize the past 40 years of American politics.
Where might these undercurrents be dragging us today? I have argued before that the continued economic downturn and growing income disparity make economic populism the more likely battleground in 2014 and 2016 than the “guns, gays and God” theme that has long characterized the Republican brand of social populism.
But who will seize the populist economic argument, and how will it be shaped? The tea party frames it as an epic struggle of individual freedom against government intrusion, a message that certainly isn’t new but, Republicans hope, is given new urgency by the botched rollout of the health-care law. (Conservative Ken Cuccinelli II’s close-run gubernatorial race in Virginia should be seen as evidence of the energy in campaigning against Obamacare.)
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The potential Democratic message isn’t so clear; despite rumblings, there has been no sustained economic movement from the left since Occupy Wall Street introduced the concept of the “1 percent” as shorthand for the skewing of wealth distribution in the United States.
While there is certainly an opening now for an economic populist to run to the left of a more establishment candidate like Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, it is unclear whether a candidate (such as Elizabeth Warren) will emerge. And the two recent, major searing events in U.S. politics – the government shutdown and the health-care sign-up woes – may benefit Clinton’s candidacy and her emerging message of “can’t we all just get along?” Both have created an opening for a candidate’s call to rise above the populist wars and seek a more pragmatic center where government works again.