Boehner on Budget: Obama is Not Leading

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April 6, 2011, 12:05 p.m.

Con­duc­ted 10/5-7; sur­veyed 1,008 adults; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 3.1% (re­lease, 10/13).

M. Obama As First Lady

Ap­prove 65% Dis­ap­prove 25

Demo­crats have been re­dis­cov­er­ing their in­ner pop­u­list lately. Pres­id­ent Obama is call­ing on the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans to pay their “fair share” in taxes. Eliza­beth War­ren, cam­paign­ing for the Sen­ate in Mas­sachu­setts, has be­come a rising star by bluntly cri­ti­ciz­ing the busi­ness class. And the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee sent out a pe­ti­tion last month aimed at lever­aging the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment against the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

But the clearest test for wheth­er Demo­crats can sell a mes­sage centered on in­come in­equal­ity won’t be in the pres­id­en­tial race, where Obama’s chances of vic­tory de­pend heav­ily on the mood of up­scale, white-col­lar pro­fes­sion­als. Rather, the battle for the hearts and minds of the work­ing-class will take place in the House race bat­tle­fields, where Demo­crats can’t af­ford to write off blue-col­lar voters if they hope to win the 25 seats they need to re­cap­ture the ma­jor­ity.

It wasn’t long ago that Demo­crats were highly com­pet­it­ive with that demo­graph­ic. In 2006 and 2008, their greatest gains came in heav­ily white dis­tricts with re­l­at­ively small con­cen­tra­tions of col­lege gradu­ates. Former DCCC Chair­man Rahm Emanuel ag­gress­ively re­cruited cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates, re­cog­niz­ing that the party couldn’t han­di­cap it­self by ced­ing Middle Amer­ica to Re­pub­lic­ans. The abil­ity to com­pete across the coun­try is what al­lowed the party to forge a con­gres­sion­al gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity for four years.

Demo­crats suffered their biggest losses last year in blue-col­lar ter­rit­ory, as Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings with blue-col­lar white voters plummeted. White voters without a col­lege edu­ca­tion voted for Re­pub­lic­an House can­did­ates nearly 2 to 1, ac­cord­ing to last year’s Edis­on Re­search exit poll. The party’s bul­wark of Blue Dog Demo­crats, many of whom had held onto seats in deeply con­ser­vat­ive dis­tricts no mat­ter the polit­ic­al cli­mate, col­lapsed.

While Demo­crats aren’t go­ing to win back many of those seats giv­en the dis­tricts’ con­ser­vat­ive ori­ent­a­tion, they’re bet­ting that a mes­sage de­cry­ing in­come in­equal­ity can put some of them in play.

Re­pub­lic­ans still hold a healthy edge in sup­port among white voters without a col­lege edu­ca­tion — 47 per­cent to 34 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll. But their ad­vant­age has nar­rowed sig­ni­fic­antly since 2010, when they led 63 per­cent to 33 per­cent in exit polling. The GOP agenda of spend­ing cuts and en­ti­tle­ment re­forms isn’t a nat­ur­al sell with this con­stitu­ency, which has been hard-hit by the re­ces­sion.

The Demo­crats’ abil­ity to win back a House ma­jor­ity may well lie with can­did­ates like Brendan Mul­len, an Ir­aq vet­er­an who’s run­ning in a work­ing-class, solidly Cath­ol­ic battle­ground dis­trict in north­ern In­di­ana. He’s pro-gun and anti-abor­tion rights, but iden­ti­fies with the Demo­crat­ic Party’s tra­di­tion­al con­nec­tion to the work­ing class.

Mul­len is a con­vin­cing rep­res­ent­at­ive of the pub­lic mood be­cause his bio­graphy is au­then­t­ic to the mes­sage he’s preach­ing. He grew up in South Bend and worked for his fath­er’s uni­on­ized lumber­yard, mov­ing Sheet­rock and hand­ling de­liv­er­ies. He at­ten­ded West Point, went to Army Air­borne School and Ranger School, and served in Ir­aq dur­ing the war. He’s run­ning for of­fice for the first time.

Mul­len is run­ning for the seat be­ing va­cated by Rep. Joe Don­nelly, D-Ind., one of the few tar­geted Demo­crats to sur­vive the 2010 wave. Re­pub­lic­ans re­drew the lines this year to make the dis­trict more fa­vor­able for them, but Obama still would have nar­rowly car­ried it. Mul­len is ex­pec­ted to face Don­nelly’s 2010 Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger, former state rep­res­ent­at­ive Jack­ie Wal­or­ski, an out­spoken tea party sup­port­er. If the tide has changed in the Demo­crats’ fa­vor, Mul­len should have more than a fight­ing chance.

Even more than the Mas­sachu­setts Sen­ate race, the In­di­ana con­test is shap­ing up to be a ref­er­en­dum of wheth­er work­ing-class voters identi­fy more with the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment or the tea party. Mul­len has close ties to labor and said he feels a con­nec­tion with the protests tak­ing place across the coun­try.

“The middle class are the ones get­ting left empty-handed as Wall Street and cor­por­a­tions are get­ting shored up,” Mul­len said in an in­ter­view, echo­ing Demo­crat­ic talk­ing points.

Mul­len isn’t the only Demo­crat­ic re­cruit pre­par­ing an un­abashedly pop­u­list cam­paign. Party of­fi­cials are op­tim­ist­ic about win­ning a rur­al, north­east­ern Arkan­sas dis­trict that Re­pub­lic­ans hadn’t car­ried since Re­con­struc­tion — un­til 2010, when now-Rep. Rick Craw­ford won the open seat. The dis­trict is one of the poorest in the coun­try, and it has one of the low­est con­cen­tra­tions of col­lege-edu­cated whites in the coun­try.

Craw­ford faces a ser­i­ous chal­lenge from state Rep. Clark Hall, who Arkan­sas polit­ic­al colum­nist John Brummett de­scribed as a “good ol’ boy farm­er with a coun­try style and com­mon wis­dom, at home on a tract­or and feast­ing on bar­be­cue and cat­fish.”

A third ma­jor test of the Demo­crats’ fo­cus on in­come in­equal­ity will be in Wis­con­sin, which has already been a bat­tle­field between labor and con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., who rep­res­ents the rur­al north­ern part of the state, has been a sup­port­er of the GOP’s eco­nom­ic agenda. He backed Gov. Scott Walk­er’s budget plan and voted for House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an‘s Medi­care-re­form pro­pos­al. His op­pon­ent, former Demo­crat­ic state Sen. Pat Kreit­low, has ac­cused him of de­clar­ing war on the middle class.

In an­oth­er sign that Demo­crats think a class-war­fare mes­sage will res­on­ate in 2012, the Demo­crat­ic su­per PAC, House Ma­jor­ity PAC, aired an ad last month point­ing to Duffy’s en­joy­ment of sushi and steak as tell­tale evid­ence that he’s out of touch with the dis­trict’s val­ues. The cul­ture-war jibe is straight out of the tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an play­book.

Pres­id­ent Obama can’t help these Demo­crat­ic re­cruits next year, but his party’s new­found mes­sage could give them a life­line. If work­ing-class voters have an ap­pet­ite for a more act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment, these are the types of can­did­ates who should be able to cap­it­al­ize on it against Re­pub­lic­ans. If they don’t, ex­pect Thomas Frank to au­thor a se­quel to What’s the Mat­ter with Kan­sas?

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