“Are you better off today than you were $4 trillion ago?”
— Former presidential candidate Rick Perry
WASHINGTON — It’s the campaign line of the year, and while the author won’t be carrying it into the general election, the eventual nominee will.
The charge is straightforward: President Obama’s reckless spending has dangerously increased the national debt while leaving unemployment high and the economy stagnant. Concurrently, he has vastly increased the scope and reach of government with new entitlements and oppressive regulation, with higher taxes to come (to offset the unprecedented spending).
In 2010, that narrative carried the Republicans to historic electoral success. Through most of 2011, it dominated Washington discourse. The air was filled with debt talk: ceilings, supercommittees, Simpson-Bowles.
What’s the incumbent to do? He admits current conditions are bad. He knows that his major legislative initiatives — Obamacare, the near-trillion-dollar stimulus, (the rejected) cap-and-trade — are unpopular. If you can’t run on stewardship or policy, how do you win re-election?
Create an entirely new narrative. Push an entirely new issue. Change the subject from your record and your ideology, from massive debt and overreaching government, to fairness and inequality. Make the election a referendum on which party really cares about you, which party will stand up to the greedy rich who have pillaged the 99 percent and robbed the middle class of hope.
This charge, too, is straightforward: The Republicans serve as the protectors and enablers of the plutocrats, the exploiters who have profited while America suffers. They put party over nation, fat-cat donors over people, political power over everything.
It’s all rather uncomplicated, capturing nicely the Manichaean core of the Occupy movement — blame the rich, then soak them. But the real beauty of this strategy is its adaptability. While its first target was the do-nothing protect-the-rich Congress, it is perfectly tailored to fit the liabilities of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney — plutocrat, capitalist, 1 percenter.
Obama rolled out this class-war counter-narrative in his Dec. 6 “Teddy Roosevelt” speech and hasn’t governed a day since. Every action, every proposal, every “we can’t wait” circumvention of the Constitution — such as recess appointments when the Senate is not in recess — is designed to fit this re-election narrative.
Hence: Where does Obama ostentatiously introduce the recess-appointed head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? At a rally in swing-state Ohio, a stage prop for Obama to declare himself tribune of the little guy, scourge of the big banks and their soulless Republican guardians.
For the first few weeks, the class-envy gambit had some effect, bumping Obama’s numbers slightly. But the story was still lagging, suffering in part from its association with an Occupy rabble that had widely worn out its welcome.
Then came the twist. Then came the most remarkable political surprise since the 2010 midterm: The struggling Democratic class-war narrative is suddenly given life and legitimacy by … Republicans! Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry make the case that private equity as practiced by Romney’s Bain Capital is nothing more than vulture capitalism looting companies and sucking them dry while casually destroying the lives of workers.
Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO nods approvingly. Michael Moore wonders aloud whether Gingrich has stolen his staff. The assault on Bain/Romney instantly turns Obama’s class-war campaign from partisan attack into universal complaint.
Suddenly Romney’s wealth, practices and taxes take center stage. And why not? If leading Republicans are denouncing rapacious capitalism that enriches the 1 percent while impoverishing everyone else, should this not be the paramount issue in a campaign occurring at a time of economic distress?
Now, economic inequality is an important issue, but the idea that it is the cause of America’s current economic troubles is absurd. Yet, in a stroke, the Republicans have succeeded in turning a Democratic talking point — a last-ditch attempt to salvage re-election by distracting from their record — into a central focus of the nation’s political discourse.
How quickly has the zeitgeist changed? Wednesday, the Republican House reconvened to reject Obama’s planned $1.2 trillion debt-ceiling increase. (Lacking Senate concurrence, the debt ceiling will be raised nonetheless.) No one noticed. It made page A16 of The New York Times. All eyes are on South Carolina and Romney’s taxes.
This is no mainstream media conspiracy. This is the GOP maneuvering itself right onto Obama terrain.
The president is a very smart man. But if he wins in November, that won’t be the reason. It will be luck. He could not have chosen more self-destructive adversaries.