In 2012, class warfare broke out in American politics.
And from the president to key Senate races, the middle
When the 2012 campaign began, the lousy economy made
President Obama vulnerable. Republicans were favored to
take back the Senate, given retirements in conservative
states. Republican billionaires – the Koch brothers,
Adelson and others – put up big money in the effort to
have it all. Instead the president swept to victory, and
Democrats gained seats in the Senate and the House.
Many factors contributed. Republicans learned once more
the shortcomings of a stale, male, pale, Southern-based
party in a nation of diversity. The GOP “legitimate
rape” caucus helped give away two Senate seats. But too
little attention has been paid to the new emerging
reality. This was the first class warfare election of
the new Gilded Age – and the middle class won big.
The Republican nominee Mitt Romney was inescapably the
candidate of, by and for the 1 percent. He came from the
world of finance and carried their agenda. He won the
primaries, as Newt Gingrich complained, because he had
more billionaires than anyone else. And the rich right
were on a wilding, not only funding the Romney campaign,
but also filling the coffers of superPACs and their
offspring with hundreds of millions of dollars.
The class war, ironically, broke out in the Republican
primaries. After Romney’s victory in New Hampshire, Newt
Gingrich and Rick Perry savaged Romney as a “vulture
capitalist,” the “man from Bain” who profited from
breaking up companies, shipping jobs abroad, and leaving
a broken carcass behind. Romney’s negatives soared,
reaching the highest on record.
And of course Romney reinforced the impression with
revealing moments that exposed his yacht club
cluelessness: “Corporations are people, my friends”; “I
like firing people”; elevators for his cars; the $10,000
bet; $375,000 in speaking fees “isn’t a lot of money”;
trying to appeal to Bubba because he knows a lot of
NASCAR owners. He secreted his past income tax
statements, while the one he revealed exposed a 14
percent tax rate on over $20 million in income, with, in
the imitable phrase of former Ohio Governor Ted
Strickland, his money “wintering in the Cayman Islands
and summering in the Swiss Alps.”
Needless to say, Obama is neither by temperament nor
predilection a populist class warrior. But faced with
potential defeat, he turned to what works. The depths of
the Obama presidency came in the summer of 2011 after
the debt ceiling debacle, in which the president was
roughed up by Tea Party zealots, and emerged looking
weak and ineffective.
Obama came back by deciding to stop seeking back-room
compromises with people intent on destroying him and to
start making his case. In the fall, he put out the
American Jobs Act and stumped across the country
demanding that Republicans vote on it. His standing in
the polls began to rise. Then Occupy Wall Street
exploded, driving America’s extreme inequality and
rigged system into the debate. In December, the
president embraced the frame: He traveled to Osawatomie,
Kansas, revisiting a campaign stop Teddy Roosevelt had
made in the first Gilded Age. He indicted the “you’re on
your own” economics of Republicans while arguing that
“this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class,
and for all those who are fighting to get into the
In the run-up to the election, the president’s campaign
employed two basic strategies. First, the president
consolidated his own coalition. He defended
contraception and pay equity while his campaign attacked
the Republican “war on women.” He reached out to
Hispanics by ending the threat of deportation for the
Dream kids. He not only ended “don’t ask, don’t tell,”
but also moved to embrace gay marriage. Widely described
as socially liberal measures, these were also profoundly
bread-and-butter concerns. Could women choose when to
have children? Could Hispanic children be free to pursue
the American dream? Could gay people gain the economic
benefits of marriage?
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
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
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
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.
America’s growing diversity and its increasingly
socially liberal attitudes played a big role in this
election. But looking back, we are likely to see this as
the first of the class warfare elections of our new
Gilded Age of extreme inequality. A besieged middle
class is increasingly aware that the rules are rigged
against them. They are increasingly skeptical of
politicians and parties, and believe – not incorrectly –
that Washington is largely bought and sold. But they are
looking for champions.
For years, conservatives in both parties have warned
against class warfare. Americans, we’re told, don’t like
that divisiveness. They see it as the politics of envy.
Inequality should, as Mitt Romney said, only be talked
about in back rooms.
More and more of our elections going forward will
feature class warfare – only this time with the middle
class fighting back. And candidates are going to have to
be clear about which side they are on. Politicians in
both parties are now hearing CEOs telling them that it
is time for a deal that cuts Medicare and Social
Security benefits in exchange for tax reform that lowers
rates and closes loopholes. Before they take that
advice, they might just want to look over their
shoulders at what will be coming at them.