In the documentary “Mitt,” Romney talks about a business owner who was complaining about his tax burden. The business owner didn’t just pay income taxes. There were also the payroll taxes and gas taxes. Fair enough, but what about Romney’s infamous 47 percent comment in which he said those who did not have a net income tax liability lacked personal responsibility? Romney failed to apply his cumulative tax analysis to workers earning under the median. Many of those workers had net payroll tax liabilities. Many of them paid gas taxes.
My point here isn’t to take one last shot at Romney. For one thing, it isn’t the last shot I will take at Romney; more importantly, Romney’s comments weren’t simply a Romney problem. They are a problem of the culture that Romney inhabits. This cultural problem shows up in Karl Rove’s horrible American Crossroads ad where he has old, white business owners complaining about how Obama is taxing and regulating them too much. At first, I thought Rove had just given up on talking to the median voter and decided it was easier just to produce an ad sucking up to his donors. I still think that is part of it, but I also think that Rove’s crew had bought into the worldview of the Washington donor/lobbyist/political operative classes. I don’t think Rove fully grasped the insularity the ad projected.
The problem didn’t go away with the 2012 election. Last year, a Marco Rubio aide was caught saying what he really believed. The Rubio aide was arguing for increasing the number of low-skill guest workers in the construction industry despite high unemployment among low-skill Americans and noncitizen residents. The Rubio aide argued that the low-skill American workers “can’t cut it”.
There are moments when a polity needs to be vigorously reminded of the contributions of business owners and entrepreneurs (pre-Thatcher England comes to mind), but the Republican party of 2012 went off the deep end. What united Romney, Rove, and the Rubio aide, was that they are all inside the same echo chamber. They all inhabited a mental universe where the complaints and interests of business owners (as described by those business owners and their lobbyists) were the interests of the community. The concerns and interests of anyone else were either derivative of, or a distraction from, what really mattered. And the public noticed. Fifty-three percent of voters said they thought Romney’s policies would primarily favor the rich. Only thirty-four percent thought Romney’s policies would primarily favor the middle-class.
It is worth comparing Romney’s life experiences to Ronald Reagan. One of Reagan’s jobs was to talk limited government politics to GE’s unionized and overwhelmingly Democratic employees. If Reagan wasn’t connecting with those workers, he was failing. Reagan managed to get a sense of the priorities of those workers. He got a sense of how those employees saw their work, the past, and their own lives.
Eventually, Reagan had a better sense of blue collar workers than liberal politicians like Walter Mondale and Mario Cuomo who were rhetorically dependent on heavily mythologized visions from the 1930s. Liberal journalists loved Mario Cuomo’s absurdly overrated speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, but Reagan carried Cuomo’s home state.
Reagan’s liberal opponents treated his appeal to wage earners as some combination of larceny and sorcery, but the truth was that Reagan was just better at listening to the wage earners of his own time while his opponents believed those wage earners were duty-bound to buy whatever distorted version of the past the Democratic party was selling. What Republican is listening so well to the concerns of today’s wage earners when it comes to national issues?
The national Republican candidate who came closest to trying to recapture Reagan’s appeal to working-class voters was Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s speech to the 2008 Republican National Convention is a good example of his strengths and weaknesses. Huckabee rooted his presentation in the lived experiences of struggling wage earners. Huckabee talked about families that had to choose between wage cuts and layoffs, and about the burden of high gas prices on a single other who had to drive her used car to work.
It all started very effectively, but Huckabee’s speech didn’t go anywhere. It didn’t lead to an agenda to improve the lives of people at or below the earnings median. Huckabee instead told a long story about a teacher who took away the desks of her students in order to teach them to appreciate military veterans.
Ramesh Ponnuru memorably described the story as half creepy and half incomprehensible, but the story was filling a hole in Huckabee’s populism. He had exhausted working-class solidarity gestures and moved on to patriotic solidarity gestures. But Huckabee was on to something (about the concerns of employees, not about taking away children’s desks). Huckabee treated the concerns of wage earners as real and not merely as derivative of, or obstacles to, the more important goals of business owners.
It is a lesson that Washington Republican leaders are failing to learn at this very moment. Some House Republican members (one suspects with the connivance of the Republican leadership) are trying to increase the number of low-skill guest workers. This despite our current population of low-skill workers having a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and a 44.5 percent labor force participation rate. This despite the extreme unpopularity of increasing low-skill immigration among lower-earning American workers. This despite the broad and bipartisan support (outside the lobbying classes) for shifting future immigration flows in the direction of skills and English-proficiency. This despite the various civic problems that come from importing a class of workers who might face deportation if they undergo a spell of unemployment and who are barred from US citizenship. No doubt these House Republicans have been told by friendly business owners and their lobbyists that there is a shortage of low-skill workers and that the current pool of low-skill workers can’t cut it. The only question is whether the House Republican leaders have heardwhether they can hearfrom anyone else.