As DHinMI points out in his front page diary (Repub Congressman Diagnoses GOP Illness, Declares Them Terminal), Tom Davis, former head of the GOP congressional campaign, has done a very interesting analysis of the problems House Republicans will have hanging come this November. The memo is very much worth reading, as DHinMI says, for that reason alone. But that isn't all of what Davis writes about in his memo. A good piece of it concerns the presidential race, and what Davis perceives to be Obama's weaknesses as a candidate vs. John McCain.
You don't have to agree with Davis in order to learn something from his analysis. But the core of it is this: Davis believes that economic populism is the key to the presidential vote, and he believes that Obama is not reaching this populist vote.
We need to make damn sure that Davis is wrong.
I point this out because Obama’s appeal is to the liberal cultural base of the Democratic Party, not to its liberal economic base. His connection to high income suburbs, the granola belt and college towns, is strong, but his connection to poorer whites, rural voters and other voters who may be susceptible to the Democrats’ message on the economy is not yet demonstrated. Conservative value voters are a long way from being sold on Obama, even while they feel pinched by global trade, a soft housing market and high gas prices. But Republicans have to hold these voters to have any chance in 2008.
Whether this is correct or not you can argue; but clearly, he thinks this is true. On this basis, he concludes that
2008 is different. Demographically, the nation is more diverse and more urbanized than in 2004. The Iraq war has proved to be the ultimate cultural issue, fueling and giving oxygen to the cultural left, as well as planting doubts in many swing voters minds about the direction of the country. The economy is softening and gas prices are skyrocketing, giving Obama an opening to court conservative value voters who are hurting economically. Fortunately, Hillary Clinton has driven a wedge between these competing constituencies, keeping them in play at the Presidential level. It begs the question of how these voters will vote in Congressional races.
Moreover, John McCain is not a polarizing figure. One could argue he is the opposite – moderate, bi-partisan, and unifying, which makes his claim on value voters different from Bush. How these lunch-bucket Democrats, who are culturally more conservative, vote this fall is the key to victory.
Certainly, McCain is going to have difficulty doing this; working class whites are pissed off at the GOP for good reason: the GOP's earned it. But I want to point out something that we've been taking for granted for while, and should not be. Clinton held out as long as she did mostly because she, as Davis says, drove "a wedge between competing constituencies, keeping them in play." While you can argue (and I personally agree) that Clinton has pushed the envelope on some of the racial anxieties of working class whites, I don't think this is really what's kept things going as long as they have. It's that Clinton, who was initially the establishment – even corporate – candidate in the race, managed to get to Obama's left on economic issues. Clinton, and not Obama ran at and largely got voters who found Edwards' populist approach compelling.
In the argument about Clinton's "negative campaiging", this point has gotten lost. Somehow, the establishment candidate successfully made populist frames work for her. Against a former community organizer who take very little in corporate contributions, no less. We should be surprised by this. Hell, we should be astounded by this. It's a testimony to Clinton's political skills that she pulled this off as well as she did. And it should raise concerns about Obama's skills that he did not prevent this, by pushing populist frames, and pushing them hard.
While I've been supporting Obama since Edwards dropped out, this has certainly been a surprise to me, and a very unpleasant one. I'm still shocked that Obama and his team let it happen. But now that Obama has tied up the nomination, it cannot happen again.
Let the lesson be learned: in the current political environment, economic populism works. While Edwards was unable to pull off a nomination himself, Hillary came very close to denying Barack the nomination, by running like Edwards. And Obama nearly lost it by failing to connect his culturally progressive message with solid, populist economic themes and policies.
Davis is not pitching a working strategy to his colleagues for either the congressional or presidential campaign. McCain isn't offering a solution to the economic anxieties of lower middle class or working class whites, nor are Congressional Republicans. And appealing to the lesser angels of their political nature has been taken as far as it will ever go. So the campaign is Obama's to lose right now. But lose it he can.
Running as a cultural progressive is not enough. Obama will need to run as an economic populist as well, or risk losing. Again, I am still astounded that Obama did not run hard for the populist wing of the Democratic Party, and finish this nomination fight two months ago. But he has been very "shy" about populist frames so far, and appears to be genuinely uncomfortable with them.
Now is the time to get comfortable. The economic populist vote is very large this year, it is very angry, and it is very much up for grabs. Will Obama reach for it? We all have to hope he will.