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This Was the First Class Warfare Election of Our Gilded Age — and the Middle Class Won Big

“God, guns and gays” didn’t work this time. The tricks used to divide working people and counter populist appeals backfired.

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At the same time, the president’s campaign made a risky but remarkably successful decision. Their opinion research showed that painting Romney as a flip-flopper had little traction, but the attacks on vulture capitalism hit home. They decided to spend big money early in such key states as Ohio on a negative ad barrage defining Romney as the heartless vulture capitalist from Bain. Both campaigns believe that Romney never recovered.

But rhetoric and attack ads alone would not have sufficed. In critical Ohio and the Midwest the president was buoyed by one of his most activist — and controversial — interventions: the rescue of the auto industry. Unpopular at the time, opposed by many of his advisors, the auto rescue was risky, painful and messy. But it became the president’s closing argument, for workers knew that he had their backs when they were in trouble.

And when Romney put Rep. Paul Ryan on his ticket, Medicare became central to the debate. Republicans labored to portray themselves as the defenders of Medicare, attacking the president for cutting “$716 billion out of Medicare to pay for a health care plan no one wanted.” But in the Democracy Corps/CAF election night poll, the president had a greater margin on who would do better on Medicare than on any other issue.

And of course, perhaps the most telling bit of class attack was self-inflicted: Romney’s infamous scorn for the “47 percent” of Americans who are “victims” who “don’t take responsibility for their lives.” Many Americans took the comments, uttered in a private setting before deep pocket donors, as revealing Romney’s true feelings. The Obama campaign took full advantage and opened up the largest lead of the campaign going into the first debate.

The president’s listlessness in that debate showed how vulnerable he was.Voters wanted change. They overwhelmingly think the country is on the wrong track. The president’s campaign — from its slogan “forward!” to its closing argument — perversely refused to offer anything than more of the same. As Bill Clinton pled at the Democratic Convention, his policies just need more time.

That left Romney an open field to be the candidate of change. But the Bain attacks countered his central argument, “I’m a businessman; I can fix this.” His agenda — a warmed over stew of conservative staples — let Obama argue that we can’t go back to what got us in this mess. The Republican convention, with its disingenuous “we built this” thematic, gave Romney no boost. In the end, voters gave Romney a small edge on who would do better on the economy, but they gave Obama a big edge on who better understands “people like me,” or who will do better restoring the middle class.

Most important, “God, guns and gays” didn’t work this time. The socially divisive tricks that political operatives Lee Atwater and Karl Rove perfected to divide working people and counter populist appeals backfired. The Republican effort to suppress the vote aroused insulted African American and young voters. The harsh anti-immigrant posturing of the Republican primaries drove Hispanics and Asians into Democratic arms.

Class warfare also benefited Democrats in Senate races. Elizabeth Warren, the scourge of Wall Street, used a powerful economic populist message to beat Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a popular incumbent and Tea Party poster boy, running a smart campaign that sought to label her an elitist “professor” who manipulated affirmative action to get ahead.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown faced over $30 million in outside negative ads, as Karl Rove made him his leading target. He won as a consistent champion of working people, for the auto rescue, against corporate trade accords, for taking on the big banks. Tammy Baldwin, the only openly gay woman in the Congress, took down the favored former governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, largely by painting him as a lobbyist for special interests divorced from the concerns of working people. And Heidi Heitkamp produced the biggest upset of all in North Dakota, running an old-time plains populist campaign, for Medicare and Social Security, against corporate trade deals, while savaging her opponent for mistreating tenants in his housing projects.

 
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