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The Middle Thingy

At last night's GOP debate, the word "class" was uttered three times before Rick Santorum declared the word out of bounds. Jon Huntsman made reference to "the creative class in this country." Romney said "the Obama economy" was hurting "the middle class." Ron Paul said the middle class "is shrinking." Finally Santorum could bear it no longer:

The governor used a term earlier that--that I shrink from. And--it's one that I don't think we should be using as Republicans: "middle class." There are no classes in America. We are a country that don't allow for titles. We don't put people in classes. There may be middle income people, but the idea that somehow or another we're going to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their [i.e., the Democrats'] job: divide, separate, put one group against another. That's not the--that's not the language that I'll use as president. I'll use the language of bringing people together.

The rank hypocrisy of this pitch should be obvious to anyone who's been following the primary race, because Santorum has fashioned himself the candidate of the working class. (Google "Santorum" and "son of a mill worker" and you get 2,600 hits.) Indeed, he couldn't complete this harangue without taking a class-based shot at the well-born, prep-schooled hedge-fund millionaire Mitt Romney:

I wasn’t for the big bank of Wall Street bailout, as Governor Romney was. And I -- and I stood firm on those and worked, actually, in the coal fields, if you will, against this idea that we needed a cap and trade program.
So if you want someone that’s a clear contrast, that has a strong record, has a vision for this country that’s going to get this country growing and appeal to blue collar workers in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in Michigan, in Indiana and deliver that message, that we care about you, too, not just about Wall Street and bailing them out, then I’m the guy that you want to put in the -- in the nomination.

This wasn't the first time Santorum declared the term "middle class" beyond the pale. He used the same line against Tim Pawlenty in 2010. Beyond the hypocrisy, I think, lies a strategy. If Santorum can intimidate other candidates into not using the phrase "middle class" then he can maintain a monopoly on the idea ("middle income," blue collar), and even on the phrase itself ("Santorum Hopes To Rebuild Middle Class" blares a Sept. 2011 Santorum press release). Do you really think you can tell a mill worker's son that he's not allowed to talk about America's class system (even as he denies it exists)? It's as brilliant as it is vile.

It also brings to mind the great scene in Albert Brooks's 1985 movie Lost in America after his wife, played by Julie Hagerty, has gambled away the family nest egg in one frantic evening at a Las Vegas casino, prompting Brooks to forbid Hagerty ever to use the word "egg" again.