As Democrats gather for turkey or tofurkey in Brooklyn and Berkeley and, yes, even in Birmingham, they should offer thanks for Mitt Romney. Not just for being a clumsy candidate in a year when a more agile one might have knocked off Barack Obama—but for the broader benefit he served the Democratic Party as a powerful clarifying force.
I touched on this after the nominating conventions, but it bears reinforcing now that the election is past. As Ramesh Ponnuru recently reminded us, for decades the Democrats' were voters' preference when asked "which party is on my side?" However, they began to put this at risk over the past twenty years, as party grandees such as Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin and Chuck Schumer built strong ties to Wall Street. This alliance brought the party heaps of campaign cash and, in some circles, credibility on economic policy, but it exposed the party to a populist critique that it was no longer looking out for the little guy.
Despite strong support from Wall Street in the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama appeared ready to set a course correction, at least judging by his tough campaign speeches on financial reform. But the financial collapse intervened, and made matters worse. To save an economy in crisis, Obama felt obliged to bring in Wall Street types like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, and he resisted cracking down on the suddenly fragile-seeming banks. Armageddon was averted, but politically, Obama ended up with the worst of both worlds. Wall Street was irked at him anyway, because even his mild criticisms and moderate reforms bruised egos and crimped profits. Meanwhile, voters saw him and the Democrats as in league with the bailed-out banks. In theory, both things could not be true, but in political reality, they very much were.
Which led to the great demoralization of the 2010 midterms. Voters were angry and frustrated and confused, and Republicans capitalized on that confusion. Even as Wall Street shifted its support toward the GOP, Republicans ran on a populist, anti-establishment platform. The main feature of this platform was an attack on the "bailouts," a phrase they skillfully used to refer to both TARP and the economic stimulus package, thereby tarring that mix of tax cuts and spending with the deep unpopularity of the bank bailouts that both parties had agreed to in late 2008. The brazenness was breath-taking: Club for Growth-backed candidates running as anti-Wall Street crusaders. But it worked. A wave of Wall Street-backed Republican freshmen swept into office under the guise of pitchfork-wielding insurgents. In mid-2011, I met one of them, Georgia's Tom Graves, who was heavily backed by the Club for Growth but emerged as a leader of the Tea Party caucus, on the night of the final vote to bring the debt ceiling showdown to a close. Where did I meet him? At Nationals Park, where he was taking in a game in AT&T's corporate skybox.
Obama and the Democrats would have been in big trouble if this muddle had lasted into the 2012 election year. Yes, they would've done their best to talk about the need for raising taxes on the rich, but Republicans could have countered, as they did in 2010, with talk of bailed-out bankers and "crony capitalists" like the Solyndra investors. Once again, voters may not have been sure just who was who's side—at best, they'd throw up their hands and figure that both parties were for the big guy.
But that didn't happen. Why? Because the Republicans nominated Willard Mitt Romney. In an era of resentment toward unaccountable financial elites, they put forward the ultimate financial elite, a man who sliced and diced companies, sheltered his income offshore, and, above all, was eye-poppingly incapable of discussing his wealth and the economic anxieties of those less fortunate in ways that might put voters at ease. The muddle that had clouded the political debate since Obama's inauguration parted. On Election Day, when exit pollsters asked voters whom they thought the candidates favored, a plurality, 44 percent, thought Obama favored the middle class, while 53 percent thought Romney favored the rich. Meanwhile, one in five voters thought that a candidate's "caring about people like me" was the most important quality, and 81 percent of them voted for Obama. The benefits for Democrats carry forward post-election: as we head toward the so-called fiscal cliff, there is little doubt who's for raising taxes on the wealthiest—a proposition supported by some 60 percent of voters—and who is not.
So Democrats, as you raise your glass on Thursday evening, say or think a thanks for Mitt Romney, who, like the Wampanoag Indians bringing their five deer to the feast, brought a great gift to America: clarity.
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