A few months ago, Politico published a piece about the Republican message machine settling on its preferred 2016 narrative. The headline said the GOP plan is to “turn Hillary into Mitt Romney.”
“A consensus is forming within the Republican Party that the plan of attack against Hillary Clinton should be of a more recent vintage, rooted in her accumulation of wealth and designed to frame her as removed from the concerns of average Americans,” the article explained.
Three months later, the New York Times reports that Republicans are spending “heavily” on focus groups, testing this message.
Inside an office park [in Orlando], about a dozen women gathered to watch a 30-second television spot that opened with Hillary Rodham Clinton looking well-coiffed and aristocratic, toasting champagne with her tuxedoed husband, the former president, against a golden-hued backdrop.The ad then cut to Mrs. Clinton describing being “dead broke” when she and her husband left the White House, before a narrator intoned that Mrs. Clinton makes more money in a single speech, about $300,000, than an average family earns in five years.The message hit a nerve. “She’s out of touch,” said one of the women, who works as a laundry attendant.
This gathering was organized by American Crossroads, a Republican super PAC created by Karl Rove, but the party broadly seems to have embraced this message.
And if Clinton is really lucky, they won’t change their minds.
As we talked about in April, there is a certain irony to the entire line of attack. In 2012, when Democrats rolled out the “out-of-touch plutocrat” message against Romney, Republicans spent months in fainting-couch apoplexy. Democrats are engaging in “class warfare,” they said. The divisive rhetoric was “un-American,” voters were told. How dare Democrats “condemn success”?
In 2015, those same Republicans have suddenly discovered they’re not so offended after all. Imagine that.
But the hypocrisy is really just the start. The real issue is the degree to which Republicans are confused about why the line of criticism against Romney was effective.
There’s an over-simplicity to the GOP’s thinking: Romney was rich; Democrats labeled him out of touch, voters believed it, so Romney lost. But that’s not what happened, at least not entirely. Once again, the problem was not that Romney was extremely wealthy; the problem was that Romney was extremely wealthy while pushing a policy agenda that would benefit people like him.
The Democratic pitch would have fallen flat if they’d simply mocked the candidate’s riches. It resonated, however, because Romney breathed life into the caricature – vowing to give tax breaks to the wealthy, promising to take health care and education benefits away from working families, and expressing contempt for the “47 percent” of Americans Romney saw as parasites.
When Democrats effectively told the American mainstream, “Romney isn’t on your side,” the GOP nominee made it easy for voters to believe it. The car elevators were simply gravy on top of an already effective narrative.
The point is, substance matters. Policy agendas matter. There’s a lengthy history of low-income voters in America voting for very wealthy candidates who are committed to fighting for those voters’ interests. Names like Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Rockefeller are familiar additions to the roster of politicians who’ve championed the needs of families far from their income bracket. Struggling voters didn’t reject them as “out of touch” because they couldn’t personally relate to poverty – rather, these voters rallied behind the wealthy candidates, without regard for their status, because of their policy agenda.
Indeed, as I type, Hillary Clinton is delivering a speech on her economic vision, much of which is focused on investing in working families as a recipe for economic growth.
Republicans are convinced what really matters isn’t the scope Clinton’s policies, but rather, the size of her bank account. That’s ridiculous.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent talked to David Axelrod, a former top aide to President Obama, who said, “The Republicans may try and make a lifestyle case, but lifestyle is the least of it. It’s what you believe and where you propose to lead.”
It’s baffling that the GOP doesn’t understand this obvious and basic dynamic.