Anti-Bainism in the GOP Primary

by Reihan Salam

Last week, we discussed how the demographics of unemployment map onto the demographics of partisanship. Broadly speaking, Republicans have suffered much less from mass unemployment than Democrats, though of course voters of all ideological stripes have suffered in all kinds of ways.

We observed that while South Carolina has a high unemployment rate (10.5%), the black-white gap in unemployment is very large (8.4% for whites, 18.2% for blacks were the averages for 2010). Even if we assume that the white unemployment rate has drifted upward, one assumes that the Republican electorate isn’t heavily weighted towards voters likely to be unemployed. 

This provides some context for the politics of anti-Bainism in a GOP primary. Late in 2008, I cited an astute observation by Thomas Edsall in Building Red America that I’d argue still holds true: 

As Thomas B. Edsall noted in his ill-timed Building Red America, published just in time for the massive Republican congressional defeat of 2006, blue-collar Republicans differ from blue-collar Democrats in a number of respects: They are more likely to be in intact families, they are less likely to belong to labor unions, and they generally believe market competition is a good thing. To put it crudely, blue-collar Republicans see themselves as economic winners — which is why the current downturn is bad for Republicans beyond the important fact that it has happened on a Republican president’s watch. Remember the old saw that FDR made working-class voters rich enough to vote Republican? In a similar vein, the broad prosperity of the 1990s, a shared legacy of Clinton and a Republican Congress, buoyed Republican fortunes.

Anti-Bainism is designed to appeal to voters who think of themselves as “losers” from economic change, not “winners.” The stagnant-if-not-deteriorating economy may well have expanded the “losers’ circle” in the general electorate and in the primary electorate. 

But it is also possible that the anti-Bain attacks will strike Republican primary voters as desperate, as Romney himself suggested in his remarks last night. That doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t resonate if Romney does indeed win the Republican presidential nomination. Consider this passage:

 

President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our Party and for our nation.  This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision.  I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success. In these difficult times, we cannot abandon the core values that define us as unique — We are One Nation, Under God.

Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.

Attacking envy is a strategy that might resonate with aspirational voters, who see themselves as more concerned with economic advancement for their families than with tearing down tall poppies out of resentment. Others, particularly in the prestige media, will see this as cruelly unfair, particularly if they find themselves outbid for various positional goods by people they consider undeserving or, in a more sympathetic case, if they are fearful of the economic future and are inclined to believe that the rich have rigged America’s political economy in their own favor.