Republicans eager to take down President Obama as an arugula-eating, out-of-touch elitist –- as they tried in 2008 –- might have their heads hung low while watching their party’s presidential primary. The GOP contenders, especially its top two hopefuls, haven’t exactly shown much in common with the little guy.
Front-runner Newt Gingrich has taken out half-million-dollar credit lines at Tiffany’s and earned $60,000 speaking fees. Worse, he’s reportedly earned as much $100 million in Washington at a time when many Americans blame government for delivering the country into its economic mess.
His chief rival Mitt Romney, meanwhile, born into wealth, once was found to be carrying only $100 bills in his wallet, and drew publicity for rebuilding his multimillion-dollar oceanfront home. And in a moment the former Massachusetts governor surely regrets, at Saturday's debate he flippantly offered Texas Gov. Rick Perry a $10,000 bet –- a clip that Democrats have gleefully pounced on.
Romney’s and Gingrich’s displays of wealth –- embodying experiences that are alien to most people –- aren’t necessarily representative of the rest of the Republican field, but both are the heavy favorites to win the party’s nomination. And their victory would neuter attacks that Obama’s life and values are out of step with average Americans.
“Given the two possible nominees, that’s not the most promising direction for [Republicans] any more,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster. “It will remain alive with the Fox News audience, but I don’t know about the promise of attracting middle-of-the-road voters.”
Even some Republicans acknowledge that line of attack will have less resonance in 2012.
“Calling him the arugula candidate only worked when he was an unknown quantity,” said GOP strategist Rob Collins. “I think the American people have made up their mind after four years.”
Painting presidential hopefuls as callous to the hardships most citizens bear has a well-worn history in American politics: It helped topple a sitting president 20 years earlier, George H.W. Bush. Democratic nominee Bill Clinton argued that Bush was focused more on international affairs than a struggling domestic economy, a message amplified after the incumbent checked his watch after a debate questioner asked how the recession had affected him personally.
Far from simply playing defense on the issue, Obama might be able to use the elitist argument against Romney or Gingrich. That could help a president whose connection to most voters has wavered of late: According to a CBS News/New York Times poll released last week, 59 percent of voters still view him as down to earth, but 54 percent say he doesn’t share the public’s priorities -- a new high for that question.
Back when his nomination appeared inevitable, Democratic strategists considered Romney vulnerable in a general election because Obama could argue he represents the plutocratic “1 percent” hurting the rest of the country.
“That comment about the $10,000 bet just confirms it,” said Bill Schneider, a senior fellow at the left-of-center think tank Third Way. “Romney is Mr. 1 Percent.”
Gingrich, he added, is trickier to define because he wasn’t born into wealth. But he said the perception that the former House speaker earned money because of his connections to Washington will turn off voters who consider the country’s political system dysfunctional and corrupt.
The background of both men look like it could fit with a presidential strategy, outlined by Obama last week, that argues Republican policies harm the middle class. Romney and Gingrich are unaware of to what degree their wealth has separated them from the experience of most Americans, said Bill Burton of the Democratic outside group Priorities USA Action. “What matters is the way the lack of self-awareness and that indifference to middle-class Americans affects their policies,” he said.
But even as Republicans concede lambasting Obama as an elitist will prove less effective, they’re not worried. It would be a mistake to pursue that critique in the first place, they say, because the president has greater vulnerabilities elsewhere. Why focus on his elitism, they note, when the country’s unemployment rates still sits above 8 percent?
“Who cares he’s a wine-and-cheese liberal?" asked Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina Republican strategist. “He’s just a liberal who doesn’t get it and hasn’t done a good job.”
Framing Republicans as elitist is a traditional Democratic argument, said the Republican operative Collins, but not one that will not resonate with voters worried about the country’s direction.
“I think it’s fun summer discussion for next year,” said Collins. “But after Labor Day, it’s going to be policy discussion -- do you like health care, do you think he’s done a good job with economy, has he done a good job with growth of government?”