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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Populist Crossfire”

Over the weekend Ron Brownstein wrote up the nightmare scenario for Democrats in terms of their appeal to white working class voters:

[P]olling just before the [health reform] bill’s approval showed that most white Americans believed that the legislation would primarily benefit the uninsured and the poor, not people like them. In a mid-March Gallup survey, 57 percent of white respondents said that the bill would make things better for the uninsured, and 52 percent said that it would improve conditions for low-income families. But only one-third of whites said that it would benefit the country overall — and just one-fifth said that it would help their own family….
Obama has already been hurt by the perception, fanned by Republicans, that the principal beneficiaries of his efforts to repair the economy are the same interests that broke it: Wall Street, big banks, and the wealthy. The belief that Washington has transferred benefits up the income ladder is pervasive across society but especially pronounced among white voters with less than a college education, the group that most resisted Obama in 2008. Now health care could threaten Democrats from the opposite direction by stoking old fears, particularly among the white working class, that liberals are transferring income down the income ladder to the “less deserving.”

Brownstein calls this dynamic “an unusual populist crossfire.” The antidote, he suggests, might be two-fold: continuing to stress the benefits for the middle class, and to the country, of health reform, while spending more time reinforcing a Democratic message on the economy and the financial system that makes Republicans, not Democrats, defenders of Wall Street and the wealthy. The White House and congressional Democrats seem to be moving briskly on both those fronts, and how well they succeed could be fateful in November. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure that perceptions (which Brownstein also documents) by poor and minority voters that health reform does in fact help them and help the country produce a greater willingness to vote this year than would normally be the case in a midterm election.

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