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Class War in the GOP Primary

 
 
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A pattern has emerged in the Republican primaries, Romney wins among Republican voters with six-figure incomes and loses among Republican voters with five-figure incomes.

We have a class war, and it's inside the Republican Party.

What has happened? What is it about Romney that has split Republicans along class lines? Does it mean Romney will struggle with working-class voters in November?

We can only conclude so much from exit polls and a few person-on-the-street quotes. Let's not forget that many pundits thought Barack Obama couldn't compete for working-class votes after his poor bowling outing preceded his drubbing in the 2008 Pennsylvania primary. Yet Obama won the Rust Belt in 2008, including Pennsylvania.

But there are two clear reasons why Romney is struggling now, and if those problems persisted, they not only portend trouble for Romney's candidacy, but for the future of conservatism.

1. Romney comes across like an out-of-touch Richie Rich.

You wouldn't think that being enormously wealthy, paying little in taxes and constantly saying insensitive things about his fortune and others' misfortune would be a problem in a Republican primary. But we are being reminded that not everyone Republican voter is in Romney's class.

Many conservatives recoiled when Newt Gingrich's Super PAC hammered Romney's track record running Bain Capital during the South Carolina primary. But those voters live 750 miles from Wall Street, and they voted for Newt.

There is mistrust of Wall Street-style finance that cuts across ideology, and Romney hasn't done anything to overcome it.

Obviously, working class people support wealthy politicians all the time. But usually there is an attempt not just to sound sympathetic to the struggles of others, but have at least a wisp of a policy agenda that speaks to those struggles.

In fairness to Romney, Republicans have been to able to get away with promising "across the board" tax cuts and "death tax repeal" for a long time -- policies designed to favor the wealthy but can be packaged to appear helpful to the working-class. And his policy proposals are only marginally different than his Republican rivals.

But the massive failure of the Bush tax cuts makes it hard to serve up that rehash, at least in a general election. So his problems in this area certainly could reverberate down the road.

2. Romney is not trusted by social conservatives.

While Romney needs to worry about how to win working-class voters in a general election without a relevant policy agenda, it may be that his current weakness with Republican working-class voters has less to do with economics and more to do with social issues -- which wealthy Republican voters don't care about as much.

Romney is getting beat more by Santorum than Gingrich these days, and Santorum has not pursued the Bain attacks. He is offering himself as the purest social conservative that ever walked on water, and attacking Romney as a phony.

This is easy to do, since Romney's abortion flip-flop is one of the most transparently political flops in the modern age.

This divide raises a deeper question for the conservative movement: has the long-standing project to forge a coalition between economic conservatives and social conservatives fallen apart?

Ronald Reagan is credited with developing a "three-legged stool" strategy to advance conservatism: marrying economic, national security and social conservatives. Republicans have been doing this so long, we forget that these remain different strains within their movement.

Reagan brought them together with broad rhetoric, for example, by arguing the American Dream needs both a "sound, productive economy" and a "return to spiritual and moral values." In the 90s, conservatives became more advanced and made "pro-family" arguments to fight the estate tax and claim the tax code has a "marriage penalty."

Now with Romney ascendent, economic conservatives and social conservatives appear to be drifting in separate directions.

Maybe they will reunite against a common enemy after the Republican convention. Maybe they will reunite once Romney is no longer seen as the titular leader of the party.

But social conservative leaders were already frustrated during the Bush administration and during the Tea Party maniabecause they felt their agenda kept getting a backseat to the economic conservative agenda. It's possible that they will get fed up.

Of course, Democrats can't expect these voters to suddenly vote their economic interests and switch parties. They are social conservatives because they prioritize social issues. But they could tune out politics altogether and stay at home on Election Day.

In other words, Romney's expected nomination may accelerate a crackup of the conservative movement that may not be so easily to stitch back together again.

UPDATE: The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis and I discuss some of this in our regular Bloggingheads.tv segment.

 

Campaign for America's Future / By Bill Scher | Sourced from

Posted at March 9, 2012, 4:46am