Boehner on Budget: Obama is Not Leading

Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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?

What We're Following See More »
FDA Approves Personalized Cancer Therapy
1 hours ago
Rep. Tiberi Confirms Resignation Report
2 hours ago

In a statement, Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH 12) confirmed a New York Times report that he would resign to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable. "While I have not yet determined a final resignation date, I will be leaving Congress by January 31, 2018."

Unemployment Claims Fall to Lowest in 44 Years
2 hours ago

"The number of Americans collecting unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level" since March 1973. According to the Labor Department Thursday, "claims for jobless aid dropped by 22,000 to 222,000." Additionally, "the less volatile four-week average slid by 9,500 to 248,250, lowest since late August."

Lewandowski Meets with Senate Intelligence Committee
2 hours ago

"President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared on Capitol Hill for a closed-door interview with the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the matter. Lewandowski is the latest senior official in Trump's orbit who has met with the committee as part of its investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign."

Obama Campaigns For Dems in Governor Races
3 hours ago

"Former President Barack Obama is returning to the campaign trail to stump for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they gear up for next month’s elections. Thursday’s events mark the first time the former president is stepping back into the political spotlight since leaving the White House. Unlike more low-key appearances earlier this year, Obama’s foray into two states won’t be a one-and-done. He is planning more public appearances as the year closes, and preparation for the 2018 midterm elections begins."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.