So Mitt Romney, writes Thomas Edsall in The New York Times, wants to make the election about entitlements vs. opportunity. He warns darkly against a government that “provides every citizen the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to innovate, pioneer or take risk.” This is the sort of thing that used to scare the bejesus out of Democrats and still does frighten some of them, but it needn’t. Romney’s error in this framing is one Republicans often make—assuming that they are the “real Americans,” and Democrats are in some way fake Americans, and therefore all of middle America must agree with them.
Romney’s approach is clever up to a point. It does successfully blend more traditional Republicanism with Tea Party resentment (reflecting, perhaps, the way in which this supposedly “new” Tea Party is really just the same old anger at poor people and nonwhite people, outfitted anew in culottes). He uses the lie Republicans have used for many, many elections, that liberals and Democrats insist not on equality of opportunity but equality of result. And he invokes “government dependency”—a well-turned locution I must confess, those being two pretty unappealing words to most people. If he becomes the nominee, and if he can get most Americans to see the election as a choice between the candidate who wants Big Daddy government to look after every aspect of your life and the candidate who insists on your freedom to pursue wealth and liberate yourself from any obligation to those below you, then he’ll be in pretty good shape.
But there exist mountains of evidence that most Americans don’t think the way Republicans want them to. As Edsall notes: “The American public is highly conflicted on the subject of providing aid to people in need. While strongly opposed to ‘welfare,’ decisive majorities support more spending in key public policy areas. Polls conducted since 1972 by the General Social Survey show that by margins of two to one, voters consistently say too little is spent on the poor, on education, on health care, on drug treatment—the list is long.”
And that’s just spending on the poor. Spending on the middle class enjoys far greater support. “Welfare” as we once knew it being largely off the table as a divisive political issue, the Republicans really don’t have much material to work with here. In one sense, the entire GOP approach on these issues since Ronald Reagan’s time has been to hide the actual agenda because Republicans know most people don’t agree with them. A famous memo from Paul O’Neill’s Treasury Department in early 2001 to the Bush White House told the new president and others to be careful about juxtaposing tax cuts with spending because “the public prefers spending on things like health and education over cutting taxes.”
So Republicans know that Americans like much of the spending that government does. And yet, like the true believers that they are, they really end up spending more of their time persuading themselves that the public agrees with them. And they do this because they genuinely believe that on some basic level they are real and good and patriotic Americans while liberals and Democrats are fake and bad and weak Americans. This is a core conviction, and it has a corollary: that we (the Republicans) represent and speak to middle America, while the Democrats represent and speak to Cambridge and Berkeley, and surely what we have to say about these matters resonates deeply in flyover country.
It’s just not nearly as true as Republicans persuade themselves it is. Middle-of-the-road voters in Iowa aren’t any more right wing than they are left wing. A tautological sentence, perhaps, but one that nevertheless needs to be repeated and understood. Republicans always assume America is behind them: on removing the reprobate Bill Clinton from office, on wanting to dismantle Medicare and Social Security, on sharing various paranoid and absurd convictions about who Barack Obama is, Republicans enter the fray certain that Middle America will agree with them. But then Middle America does not. They really liked Clinton and recognized what was going in 1998 as a time-wasting witch hunt, they love their Social Security and Medicare, and they elected Obama over a genuine war hero by (for such an evenly divided country) a pretty massive margin.
So back we come to Romney. His chosen words are pretty good. But this isn’t the mid-1980s. Majorities of average Americans no longer think the Democratic Party is in essence stealing from them. And majorities of average Americans pretty much like Obama personally. If they didn’t, his approval rating would have dipped down into the 30s when unemployment was north of 10 percent. It never did. Most Americans are pulling for the guy. Another fact that drives wingers nuts, and that I chuckle about at least four or five times a week.
Romney has been drinking tea-infused water for months now, trying to appease those to his right. I’m sure he thinks that at the same time, he’s talking sense to the rest of America. But the rest of America isn’t as intoxicated by those hairy-chested nostrums about self-reliance as conservatives think they are.