When Does It Make Sense to Make Voters Mad?

Democrats are giving Republicans a run for their money in practicing the politics of grievance.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a stop of the 'Give America a Raise' bus tour at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers and low-wage workers spoke about the challenge of living on minimum wage and the potential economy-wide benefits of an increase of the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)
National Journal
James Oliphant
April 15, 2014, 3:03 p.m.

For dec­ades, Re­pub­lic­ans have been the un­dis­puted mas­ters of what might be called the polit­ics of griev­ance, the sow­ing of dis­har­mony among the elect­or­ate in or­der to drive turnout. Think of Nix­on’s Si­lent Ma­jor­ity. Or the Re­agan Demo­crat. Or, more re­cently, the cease­less fear-mon­ger­ing over Obama­care.

But Demo­crats, in­creas­ingly, have re­sor­ted to sim­il­ar tac­tics. And this year, faced with a dif­fi­cult midterm map, they’ve fash­ioned a strategy built around stok­ing the fires of re­sent­ment among base voters in a bid to make them care about Novem­ber’s elec­tions.

With that strategy comes some risk of over­heat­ing. Take the fur­or over House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi’s com­ments last week that op­pos­i­tion to im­mig­ra­tion re­form was steeped, in part, in ra­cism. And then Rep. Steve Is­rael, the man charged with help­ing Demo­crats get elec­ted to the House, piled on over the week­end, say­ing that, “to a sig­ni­fic­ant ex­tent, the Re­pub­lic­an base does have ele­ments that are an­im­ated by ra­cism.”

His re­marks came after a week of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id ac­cus­ing Re­pub­lic­ans on a daily basis of en­dors­ing pay­ing wo­men less than men, be­cause a bill spe­cific­ally tailored to al­low Demo­crats to use the is­sue as a cudgel did what it was de­signed to do: fail on the floor. The White House hasn’t shied away from em­bra­cing the strategy, either. Last week, it hos­ted a care­fully timed “Equal Pay Day.” It’s done the same for is­sues such as in­creas­ing the min­im­um wage and ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance.

Demo­crats struck a sim­il­ar note in 2012, of course, with the cries about a “war on wo­men.” But the midterms present a great­er mes­saging chal­lenge. Last month, Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan Green­berg soun­ded a red alert when his sur­veys sug­ges­ted that the core of the so-called rising Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate, the one that pro­pelled Barack Obama to two terms as pres­id­ent, wasn’t plan­ning to show up in 2014.

That has forced the party to find reas­ons for people to come out and vote, and they’ve se­lec­ted is­sues that tar­get slices of the elect­or­ate. Hence, equal pay, an is­sue that es­pe­cially res­on­ates with single wo­men; the min­im­um wage, which may an­im­ate minor­ity voters; and im­mig­ra­tion re­form, which gal­van­izes His­pan­ics. And likely com­ing soon to a Re­id press avail­ab­il­ity near you: stu­dent-loan modi­fic­a­tion, teed up for the hard-to-get youth vote.

At the same time, Re­id’s re­lent­less ham­mer­ing of the Koch broth­ers has been, viewed from a dis­tance, less about the in­flu­ence of money in polit­ics and more about the no­tion that the rich are prosper­ing while the less for­tu­nate struggle. It’s what Demo­crats did so suc­cess­fully two years ago in ty­ing Mitt Rom­ney to Bain Cap­it­al. All of it has been wrapped in a cam­paign Demo­crats say is aimed at en­sur­ing “a fair shot for every­one,” dir­ectly aimed at dis­af­fected voters who be­lieve they’re on the short end. And it may help ex­plain why Pelosi and Is­rael were so com­fort­able as­sert­ing that parts of the Demo­crat­ic base are vic­tims of ra­cism.

Nev­er­the­less, Demo­crats re­main hobbled by the lack of a large, uni­fy­ing mes­sage, es­pe­cially with one of their own in the White House and the eco­nomy still strug­gling. There’s noth­ing to rally the base en masse like George W. Bush and the Ir­aq War did in 2006, and noth­ing that mo­tiv­ates large swaths of their voters like op­pos­i­tion to the Af­ford­able Care Act does for con­ser­vat­ives.

Mi­chael Mc­Don­ald, an ex­pert on voter turnout at George Ma­son Uni­versity, is du­bi­ous that the Demo­crats’ is­sue-tar­get­ing ef­fort will spark a dif­fer­ent mix of midterm voters. “They’re ba­sic­ally try­ing to reen­gin­eer the elect­or­ate,” Mc­Don­ald said. “His­tory is not on their side.” The poor Demo­crat­ic turnout in a Flor­ida swing dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion last month only seemed to re­af­firm that.

But there is a sliv­er of hope for the party, one that was backed up by Green­berg’s re­search. There is some evid­ence, Mc­Don­ald said, that eco­nom­ic is­sues such as the min­im­um wage could con­vince low-in­come voters who would oth­er­wise stay home to vote. Moreover, the mes­saging out of Cap­it­ol Hill is be­ing aug­men­ted by a ground-based get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tion, spear­headed by the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, that is modeled on the Obama turnout ma­chine.

Mor­gan Jack­son, a Demo­crat­ic strategist in North Car­o­lina, be­lieves the niche ap­proach could work, that a por­tion of the elect­or­ate in his state feels vic­tim­ized by the GOP both na­tion­ally and loc­ally. (The state Le­gis­lature has passed, among oth­er things, a voter-ID law.) “I think here it has some strength. There’s real en­ergy on the ground,” he said. “You’ve got this feel­ing among the Demo­crat­ic base that they’re be­ing gone after.”

Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­ans have been eager to paint the Demo­crat­ic plan as noth­ing but elec­tion-year theat­er. “Their gov­ern­ing agenda is ac­tu­ally a polit­ic­al doc­u­ment draf­ted by the cam­paign staff,” Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell groused on the Sen­ate floor last week.

But un­like in 2010, there has been a great­er ef­fort this cycle to try and com­pete for the demo­graph­ic that com­prises the Obama co­ali­tion, es­pe­cially wo­men. It was ap­par­ent last week in the dis­pute over the Paycheck Fair­ness Act, when Re­pub­lic­ans talked about their own ef­forts to help wo­men in the work­place. In Michigan, Terri Lynn Land, con­sidered a strong con­tender to wrest Carl Lev­in’s seat from Demo­crats, waded in­to the equal-pay de­bate by ar­guing for work­place flex­ib­il­ity. The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee this week launched a pro­gram called “14 in ‘14” which is aimed at en­ga­ging and mo­bil­iz­ing wo­men in the 21-to-40 demo­graph­ic ahead of Novem­ber.

“We have to be more ag­gress­ive in talk­ing to wo­men. We have to ask for their vote,” said RNC spokes­wo­man Kirsten Kukowski. “It’s not something that we’ve been do­ing the last couple of cycles.”

The new ap­proach was also evid­ent in re­marks made by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a po­ten­tial 2016 con­tender for the GOP nom­in­a­tion, last week­end at a New Hamp­shire polit­ic­al event. Cruz talked about “vic­tims” of the Obama eco­nomy in terms that soun­ded ripped from the Obama cam­paign play­book — with a little Harry Re­id Koch-bait­ing mixed in.

“It’s young people. It’s His­pan­ics. It’s Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. It’s single moms,” Cruz said. “The rich and power­ful, those who walk the cor­ridors of power, are get­ting fat and happy un­der the Obama eco­nom­ic agenda.”

Cruz’s re­marks made clear that both sides be­lieve there are swaths of the elect­or­ate hold­ing griev­ances against Wash­ing­ton. The midterms may well be de­cided by which side can best ex­ploit them.

What We're Following See More »
SHIFT FROM ROMNEY’S NUMBERS
Catholics, Highly Educated Moving Toward Dems
19 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Catholics who attend mass at least weekly have increased their support of the Democratic nominee by 22 points, relative to 2012, when devout Catholics backed Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, a Morning Consult poll shows that those voters with advanced degrees prefer Hillary Clinton, 51%-34%. Which, we suppose, makes the ideal Clinton voter a Catholic with a PhD in divinity.

‘CROSSED THE RED LINE’
North Korea: U.S. Has Effectively Declared War
40 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"North Korea's top diplomat for U.S. affairs told The Associated Press on Thursday that Washington ... effectively declared war by putting leader Kim Jong Un on its list of sanctioned individuals, and said a vicious showdown could erupt if the U.S. and South Korea hold annual war games as planned next month." Han Song Ryol said: "The United States has crossed the red line in our showdown. We regard this thrice-cursed crime as a declaration of war."

Source:
RUSSIA COMMENTS
Trump: I Was Being Sarcastic
44 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump's defense of his comments that Russia should hack Hillary Clinton's emails: he was kidding. “Of course I’m being sarcastic,” Trump said on Fox and Friends. “But you have 33,000 emails deleted, and the real problem is what was said on those emails from the Democratic National Committee."

Source:
PHOTO OP
Clinton Shows Up on Stage to Close Obama’s Speech
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

Just after President Obama finished his address to the DNC, Hillary Clinton walked out on stage to join him, so the better could share a few embraces, wave to the crowd—and let the cameras capture all the unity for posterity.

‘DON’T BOO. VOTE.’
Obama: Country Is Stronger Than Eight Years Ago
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

In a speech that began a bit like a State of the Union address, President Obama said the "country is stronger and more prosperous than it was" when he took office eight years ago. He then talked of battling Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008, and discovering her "unbelievable work ethic," before saying that no one—"not me, not Bill"—has ever been more qualified to be president. When his first mention of Donald Trump drew boos, he quickly admonished the crowd: "Don't boo. Vote." He then added that Trump is "not really a plans guy. Not really a facts guy, either."

×