Entry from November 28, 2011

According to New York Times blogger John Harwood “it is a measure of the altered political environment” since Joe the Plumber elicited from then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008 a purpose to “spread the wealth around” — a comment seen by candidate John McCain, among others, as worryingly “socialist” at the time — “that Democrats now see the distribution of income as a weapon of their own.” Whether or not there is any psephological evidence for this contention, Mr Harwood does not tell us. His evidence appears to consist only of the impression made on Senator Chuck Schumer by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in Zucotti Park. “The whole battleground has changed,” says Senator Schumer, described by Mr Harwood as “the top political strategist among Democrats” in the Senate. “There’s been a major shift in public opinion.”

By highlighting the widening disparity between top earners and everyone else, Mr. Schumer said, the movement has created an opening for Democrats even as the Obama-era economy remains weak. “Jobs and income inequality are going to be the No. 1 issue” in 2012, he said. “Simply cutting government isn’t going to work.”

Leaving aside the fact that simply cutting government isn’t anybody’s policy, since it is a necessary but not a sufficient reform, some might say that jobs and greater income equality are antithetical. Income inequality and jobs are both by-products of economic growth. You limit one only by limiting the other two. Moreover, “the widening disparity between top earners and everyone else” is leftover rhetoric from the boom years. The disparity isn’t widening anymore, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out last August. But it remains a part of what Mr Harwood’s article calls (inevitably) the “narrative.”

“The Republican/Tea Party narrative about the economy has been superseded by a different narrative — one that emphasizes the growing gap between those at the very top of the economic ladder and the rest of the country,” Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who advises Mr. Schumer, wrote in a memorandum last week.

To his credit, Mr Harwood recognizes that, narrative or no narrative, “Democrats have not proved that they can harness the sort of political energy Republicans reaped from the Tea Party in 2010.” But to this, Senator Schumer says airily, “That is our challenge.”

Well, maybe it’s more of a challenge than he thinks. Or pretends to think. For the OWS class-war rhetoric is really just whistling past the graveyard. I doubt that even Senator Schumer really thinks it will bring in numbers of new Democratic voters. Not only has there never been a successful American election campaign founded so nakedly and so completely on an attack on “the rich,” but the Tea Party’s successes were founded on a “narrative” so opposite to that of the Occupy Wall Streeters that it seems almost impossible that both could be electoral winners in the space of only two years. There is also evidence in yet another of the New York Times blogs that shrewder Democratic heads already recognize this. Thomas Edsall, formerly of The Washington Post and now a professor of journalism at Columbia writes:

For decades, Democrats have suffered continuous and increasingly severe losses among white voters. But preparations by Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class. All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment — professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists — and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.

This is another way of saying that the President’s strategists, if not Senator Schumer, recognize that the inequality narrative won’t work, since there is no point to it if it doesn’t persuade that big white working class that Mr Edsall says they have already given up on. It’s not needed to persuade the base in the “center-left coalition” he describes, though it might have some marginal effect in increasing turnout. For what is being described here is the 2004 Karl Rove, turn-out-the-base strategy that (barely) worked for the Republicans then because their base is bigger. Or was bigger. Mr Edsall notes that “demographic trends suggest the continued growth of pro- Democratic constituencies and the continued decline of core Republican voters, particularly married white Christians.” That might allow such a strategy to work for the Democrats this time, but if so it will be a close and very hard won victory — hardly a case of the “narrative” behind their sock-the-rich strategy sweeping the country.

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