Barack Obama is an Ivy League–educated former University of Chicago law lecturer with intellectual pretensions and a wide streak of introversion. If he weren’t president of the United States, he might be a staff writer for The New Yorker. It would hard to come up with an elitist liberal more stereotypically vulnerable to a Republican campaign lambasting him as out of touch.
Yet, in two presidential campaigns in a row, Barack Obama has easily bested his Republican opponents on the quality of being in touch with ordinary people. Somewhere, Adlai Stevenson — who set the standard for eggheaded liberalism in losing presidential bids in the 1950s — must wonder how Obama pulls it off.
According to the exit polls, 27 percent of people said the candidate quality that mattered most was “shares my values.” Romney won 55 percent of them. Another 18 percent wanted “a strong leader.” Romney won 61 percent of them. Yet another 29 percent wanted the candidate with “a vision for the future.” Romney won them, too.
But the pollsters asked about one more quality: “Cares about people like me.” For 21 percent of people, that was the most important quality, and Obama trounced Romney among them, 81 percent to 18.
Fifty-three percent of people said Obama is “more in touch with people like you,” and only 43 percent said the same of Romney. In 2008, Obama held a similar advantage over Senator John McCain.
Contemporary liberals will always be identified with caring, which is their calling card. But there is no reason that they should be considered the tribunes of the middle class. On Tuesday, a plurality, 44 percent, thought Obama’s policies favor the middle class. A majority, 53 percent, thought Romney’s policies would favor the rich.
It’s not hard to imagine why this might be so. To put it in crude terms, the Republicans have an image as the party of the rich. Mitt Romney is rich. And, on top of that, his policies were easily distorted as simply favoring the rich. The Obama campaign was always going to have a broad opening to smear him as the tool of the “1 percent.”
The Romney team evidently understood this, and the Republican invoked the middle class constantly. But he had no signature policies to back up the message. Romney’s policy play for the middle class was almost a parody of a Wall Street Republican’s idea of how to help middle-income families: He proposed to cut capital-gains and dividends taxes for people making less than $200,000 a year.
Romney ended up as an odd combination of an essentially pragmatic politician running on a cookie-cutter conservative agenda. Don’t get me wrong: His agenda was far preferable to the president’s. But his conservatism had no distinctive flavor and nothing to inoculate it from simplistic attacks.
A different Romney agenda could have provided more substantive reinforcement for his rhetoric: say, a tax plan that offered a generous child tax credit for families, a more explicit replacement plan for Obamacare that emphasized controlling health-care costs, and a proposal to begin addressing spiraling college tuitions.
There is a resistance on the right to a direct appeal to middle-class economic interests, out of an understandable fear of anything that smacks of class-based politics. But the middle class isn’t a special-interest group; almost everyone identifies with it. A recent Pew survey found that only 7 percent of people call themselves lower class and 2 percent upper class.
In the wake of Tuesday’s debacle, there will be a natural tendency for Republicans to want to try to appeal to specific demographic groups, in a direct counter to President Obama. This is likely to result in much that is foolhardy and ineffectual. Better for Republicans to think seriously about how to identify with the interests of the broad middle of the country, and to convince it that their policies will advance those interests.
This is hardly mission impossible. If Barack Obama can do it, anyone can.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected] © 2012 King Features Syndicate