Who’s the Elitist?

The GOP’s Class-Warfare Hypocrisy, From Nixon to Romney

Romney in the Hamptons? Conservatives accuse Obama of class warfare, but they’ve run on class resentment for decades, says Peter Beinart.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

“A woman in a blue chiffon dress poked her head out of a black Range Rover here on Sunday afternoon and yelled to an aide to Mitt Romney, ‘Is there a V.I.P. entrance. We are V.I.P.’

Thus began yesterday’s nasty little New York Times story entitled, “Romney Donors Out in Force in Hamptons.” It follows snarky coverage of Romney’s Jet Ski-filled vacation at his multi-million dollar New Hampshire estate. Which follows a flurry of reports suggesting that the Obama campaign’s assault on Romney’s record at Bain Capital is hurting him in key states like Ohio.

Conservatives are livid. “The Obama campaign has made it clear that they will run this whole election on class warfare,” declared the website The Right Sphere. “Instead of focusing on Obama’s dismal record, they want Americans to resent Mitt Romney for being successful.” Luckily, added Commentary, Obama’s Maoist tactics will fail because America remains “an aspirational society that admires rather than resents success.”

Really? If that’s the case, why have Republicans used class resentment so effectively for the last 60 years? Joseph McCarthy, the man whose specter terrified Democrats for a generation, was all about class warfare. “It has not been the less fortunate or members of minority groups who have been selling this nation out,” he told the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, in the speech that catapulted him to stardom, “but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer—the finest homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in government we can give. This is glaringly true in the State Department. There the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been worst.”

Richard Nixon seethed with class anger. “What starts the process really are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid,” he confided to a friend. “Sometimes it’s because you’re poor or Irish or Jewish or Catholic or ugly or simply that you are skinny. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.”

Then there are the more recent examples. In 1988, George H.W. Bush accused Michael Dukakis of having learned his views in “Harvard Yard's boutique,” a bastion of “liberalism and elitism.” (Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, later declared that had he been running Dukakis’ campaign, he would have shown ads featuring Bush on his private tennis court alongside images of his waterfront mansion in Kennebunkport, before having the narrator intone: “No wonder he wants to cut capital gains taxes on the wealthy.”)

In 2004, the GOP-aligned Club for Growth (an organization composed largely of dirt farmers) ran an ad calling Howard Dean’s campaign a “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show.” When John Kerry bested Dean for the Democratic nomination, George W. Bush’s campaign ran an ad that featured him windsurfing. Bush’s commerce secretary declared that Kerry “looked French.”

And Republicans don’t use class warfare only against Democrats. They use it against Mitt Romney. "Even the richest man can't buy back his past," announced a Rick Perry ad last October. “This is a campaign of people power versus money power,” declared Newt Gingrich this February. "We’re just not going around meeting with CEOs and in the big cities,” added Rick Santorum in March. “This campaign is living off the hard work of average ordinary people across this country who want to see a fundamental change, not on folks who have—well, let's say a special interest in electing their candidate.”

For his part, Romney responded by calling Gingrich “a wealthy man, a very wealthy man. If you have a half a million dollar purchase from Tiffany’s, you’re not a middle-class American."

So, yes, America is an “aspirational” country, but it’s also a country where people distrust elites. It’s a country where people with money and pedigree are vastly overrepresented in government yet risk their careers if they can’t connect to ordinary voters. Mitt Romney will be judged by those same rules: Do middle class Americans find him personally appealing? Do they believe his success has benefited the nation as a whole?

For much of the last half-century, Republicans have understood these rules better than Democrats. If Mitt Romney doesn’t, he has no one to blame but himself.