During a 1992 campaign stop, George H.W. Bush entered the lore of classic campaign blunders by reading the stage directions on his cue cards. (“Message: I care,” he declared.)
Mitt Romney did something similar in his instantly celebrated interview last week with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, when he said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” because “they have a safety net,” and that he was likewise not worried about “the very rich” because “they’re doing just fine.” Romney insisted that his focus would be on the sandwiched middle class.
In one sense, those comments were unremarkable: Politicians in both parties incessantly extol the middle class. But Romney’s remarks generated instant turmoil because they made so explicit arguments that are usually just implied.
Romney awkwardly restated a theme central to conservative populism for decades: the contention that, while the government protects the poor with a safety net, it doesn’t do enough to help middle-class families. His formulation also flicked at a more recent cry from populists of the right and the left—the argument that what government has done to repair the economy since 2008 has benefited the same powerful interests that broke it. In each case, the underlying indictment is the same: Government is taking money from middle-class families struggling to get by and transferring it up or down the income ladder—in either case, to people who don’t deserve it.
Both sides of that equation bother conservatives. But it is the transfers to the poor—a dynamic freighted with racial overtones for many Americans—that historically have most stirred the Right. Think of Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” and the backlash against the Democratic theme of “fairness” that pollster Stanley Greenberg documented among the working-class whites of Michigan’s Macomb County during the 1980s.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, these explosive issues tore apart the New Deal Democratic coalition and helped Republicans make enormous inroads among whites, especially the working class. When President Clinton reached agreement with the Republican Congress in 1996 to reform welfare, it significantly defused these debates (especially as the economy boomed throughout his second term). But amid the public and private austerity imposed by the Great Recession, the conflict over redistribution of wealth has resurfaced.
Romney awkwardly restated a theme central to conservativepopulism for decades.
From Romney’s claim that President Obama wants to impose a “European-style entitlement society” to Newt Gingrich’s portrayal of him as the “most successful food-stamp president,” Republican candidates are again pounding the theme that Washington is spending too much to coddle the poor. It’s an argument that powerfully resonates with the GOP base. In a Pew Research Center survey last year, three-fifths of Republicans agreed that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
In the new book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol and coauthor Vanessa Williamson argue that opposition to transfer payments—rather than resistance to government spending in general—most energizes the movement. Tea partiers “see themselves as hardworking Americans whose taxes should not fund benefits for ‘freeloaders,’ ” Skocpol wrote last Sunday in The Washington Post. “Along with illegal immigrants, low-income Americans and young people loom large as illegitimate consumers of public benefits and services.”
There’s no question that more Americans now rely on the safety net. The Census Bureau reports that the share of households receiving any means-tested entitlement (from food stamps to health care) rose from 23.9 percent in August 2008 to 26.5 percent last fall. Federal spending on those programs has spiked by about 60 percent since 2007, to some $700 billion now. Those trends fuel conservative fears about a culture of dependency.
But spending on safety-net programs has increased almost entirely because economic security has plummeted. The number of unemployed Americans more than doubled from 2007 through 2009 and even now remains 80 percent above its prerecession level. The share of Americans in poverty has increased by 50 percent since 2000. With the exception of Medicaid, the administration forecasts spending on means-tested programs to stabilize or decline as the economy recovers and those losses recede.
By contrast, as baby boomers retire, spending is projected to continue rising rapidly for Social Security and Medicare—programs that more broadly serve the middle class. Today, the Census Bureau reports, more households benefit from either of those programs than from all means-tested entitlements, and they cost Washington over $500 billion more each year than programs for poor people. Yet polls show that even conservative whites view Social Security and Medicare as something they have earned, and they are much more resistant to retrenching these programs than those for the poor.
The GOP contenders are talking tough about restructuring Medicare and (to a lesser extent) pruning Social Security. But even if the Republicans win big this year, that sense of entitlement among older and blue-collar whites could enormously complicate those plans. Targeting the poor alone won’t be enough to unravel what Romney calls the “poison” of dependency on government—even if that truth is likely to unpleasantly surprise many of the voters the GOP can’t win without.
This article appears in the February 11, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.