The Republicans Return to '47 Percent' Politics

By simultaneously demonizing the unemployed and shilling for corporations, the GOP is re-running Mitt Romney's Doomed 2012 Campaign

The hottest trend in Republican politics is taking money away from their constituents, presumably for the purpose of owning the libs. Over the last couple of weeks, more than eleven states run by Republican governors have ended their states’ participation in the enhanced unemployment benefits program included in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Every Republican in the Wisconsin Congressional delegation — including vulnerable incumbent Senator Ron Johnson — sent a letter to the Governor asking to cut the state’s residents off from the enhanced benefits.

These actions are the culmination of months-long narrative creation in the GOP that businesses were unable to hire people because the enhanced unemployment benefits were too generous. In other words, service industry employees could make more money sitting at home rather than working. Fox News and other Right-Wing outlets have been awash with wall-to-wall anecdotes about restaurants unable to hire enough workers. This exchange between White Press Secretary Jen Psaki and an overly eager Fox News “reporter” is a good example of how the Right-Wing is framing the story:

None of these stories provide evidence that enhanced unemployment is the reason for the labor shortage. Given the demographic makeup of the party coalitions and the states that have cut off the benefits, it’s almost certain that these acts of performative cruelty disproportionately affect the voters that put these Republican governors in office.

On its face, taking money out of people’s pockets for a fake reason seems like bad politics. But the Republican effort to demonize the recipients of enhanced unemployment benefits is clearly part of their political strategy for 2022 and consistent with the long history of the party. Blaming the unemployed and the suffering is part of a long pattern in Republican politics, best embodied by Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comments in 2012. In the past, Republicans have successfully demonized the less fortunate to win elections. But this time around, the Republican re-embrace of “47 percent” politics is a huge opportunity for the Democrats to drive a wedge in a Republican Party that depends on working-class voters while pushing for corporatist policies.

Don’t Forget That It’s B.S.

The most important point to remember about the enhanced U.I. issue is that the Republican argument is almost entirely bullshit. You can always find someone somewhere to support an entirely specious point. There are undoubtedly many restaurants that are struggling to hire enough workers. There may even be some workers who would rather continue getting enhanced unemployment than work for poverty wages. However, the labor shortage — to the extent there is one — is not solely or primarily attributable to the increased unemployment benefits.

Now, of course, it has apparently not occurred to any of these business owners, Right-Wing media hacks, or Republican politicians that the problem is not that unemployment benefits are too generous, but that wages are too low.

The April jobs report was disappointing. While it’s too early to say whether it’s an anomaly or a trend, the Republicans did not waste a nanosecond — immediately claiming the lower-than-expected job growth was positive proof that the enhanced unemployment benefits were hurting the economy. But as Eric Levitz pointed out in New York Magazine, the data within the report doesn’t support the Republican message.

For one thing, the labor supply expanded last month — the number of Americans looking for work increased by 430,000. If the primary constraint on job growth was the welfare-induced shiftlessness of America’s non-employed, we would expect to see labor-force participation remain stagnant or fall. For another thing, leisure and hospitality — the sector most sensitive to a welfare-induced labor shortage due to its relatively low wages and the large number of former food-service workers eligible for UI — added more jobs in April than it had in March. The headline jobs number was not depressed by tepid restaurant hiring, but by large job declines for couriers and grocery-store workers, and small ones in manufacturing and retail. Finally, although wages rose in April, they didn’t rise by much. Were employers suffering from a severe labor shortage, we’d expect to see more upward pressure on both wages and prices.

This is not surprising. The Republicans — currently purging their ranks of people unwilling to support the Big Lie — have never let the facts get in the way of their messaging. Blaming the unemployed and the ones suffering the most is part of a long pattern in Republican politics.

The Long History of 47 Percent Politics

Since the New Deal, American politics has always been a battle about the role of government. Support for increased governmental support (i.e., Big Government) waxes and wanes depending on the Republican Party’s ability to convince the public that their tax dollars are going to some undeserving “other.” Starting with Ronald Reagan’s racist “welfare queen” smears, the Republicans have spent decades trying to erode support for the government by creating false narratives about poor, lazy, non-white people leaching off the taxpaying dollars of hard-working, white people.

The debate is usually covered as “Big Government vs. Small Government,” but that framing is inherently pro-Republican and false. Ultimately, what the Republicans want is not a debate about the size of the government but a debate about which Americans are worthy of governmental assistance.

To say that this strategy was successful in the past would be the understatement of the century. During the Reagan Era, Republicans so thoroughly shifted the political firmament of the role of government that President Bill Clinton felt compelled to go before the nation and declare that “the era of big government” was over.

Demonizing the less fortunate works best as a political strategy in times of economic distress. Hoping to take advantage of a slower than expected recovery from the 2008 Financial Crisis, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign returned to Reagan Era economic messaging. Paul Ryan, Romney’s Vice-Presidential candidate, bemoaned the “takers” in American society — who, unlike the “makers” — depend on some form of government assistance. Romney campaign surrogates attacked Obama as the “food stamp president,” which definitely wasn’t at all racist.

A campaign that attacked the “very poor” was an odd choice for a multi-millionaire private equity executive running on a massive tax cut for the wealthy paid for by raising taxes on the middle class. But whatever chances Romney had came to an end when he was caught on video arrogantly attacking 47 percent of the American people. In the video, which was originally reported by Mother Jones, Romney tells a crowd at a fundraiser:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”

The video dominated the political conversation for weeks and was, for all intents and purposes, the end of Romney’s campaign. It was treated by the media as a gaffe caught on camera, but it wasn’t. Romney’s 47 percent comment was just an overly blunt, awkward distillation of the Republican Party’s philosophy. And it’s this philosophy the Republicans are returning to as they try to figure out how to beat Joe Biden and his very popular agenda.

The Cynical UI Strategy

Republicans are dealing with a political paradox. The narrow Democratic majorities, the map. and history suggests that the 2022 elections should be a great opportunity for Republicans. But President Biden is very popular, and his agenda is even more popular — including with a substantial segment of Trump voters. Republicans have also utterly failed at their attempts to turn Biden into a scary figure that might juice turnout on their side.

Given an array of bad options, the party has decided to once again run against “big government.” If government is seen by the voters as relief checks, vaccines, small business loans, and rebuilt roads and bridges, the Democrats will succeed. The Republican obsession over the supposed generosity of the unemployment benefits is part of a desperate effort to change the focus.

This an uphill battle for the Republicans. The American Rescue Plan that included the unemployment provision is one of the most popular pieces of legislation in recent history. Prior to passage, a Data for Progress poll from March found 71 percent support for the provision. But there are reasons for caution. First, the sad history of American politics is that pitting people against each other over how taxpayer dollars are spent is far too easy. Second, the power of the Right Wing media aided and abetted by a mainstream media twisting themselves into a “balanced” pretzel should not be underestimated. It’s possible that large segments of the population will be aware and believe this canard about unemployment insurance hurting the workforce. Finally, there are some warning signs in recent polling that the public’s support for more government spending is not endless. An April Washington Post/ABC poll found:

In another caution for the president, a slim majority of Americans — 53 percent — say they are either “very” or “somewhat” concerned that Biden will do too much to increase the size and role of government. Overall, Americans are almost evenly split on whether they favor a smaller government with fewer services (48 percent) or a larger government with more services (45 percent).

These Republican attacks shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. They could work, but they are also an opportunity for Democrats looking to defy history in the upcoming elections.

How to Fight Back

Mitt Romney’s 47 percent gaffe may have been the coup de grace, but the campaign was long over before the video surfaced. In the Obama 2012 campaign, we were aware of the challenges of running for reelection in a tough economy. Whoever won the economic debate would win the presidency. The ability of the Republicans to weaponize government support for the unemployed and less fortunate was a real threat — especially against a Black president. Obama knew the way out of this problem.  Our campaign turned the economic debate into a debate about who was fighting for whom.

Obama was fighting for the middle class and everyone who aspired to be in it, and Romney was fighting for the wealthy and the corporations. This was a winning strategy, and it is one Democrats can adopt again because Republicans are making the same mistakes Romney made.

By demonizing the unemployed while pushing for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and opposing a $15 minimum wage, the Republicans are leading with the chin. And the best way to punch Republicans right in the mouth (politically) is by pairing their own attacks on the unemployed with their support for policies that benefit the wealthy. In politics, the economy cannot be treated as a policy debate where candidates flip over white papers like trump cards. It must be a story with protagonists and antagonists that explains how we got here and where we are going. If the Republicans want to make the unfortunate the avatars for all that is wrong, then Democrats must paint a vivid picture of how Republicans are in cahoots with billionaires and powerful corporations that have profited in the pandemic while everyone else suffered. Here’s one version of a message to use in these fights:

The Republicans are cutting off emergency unemployment benefits to Americans who lost their job in the pandemic at the exact same time they are fighting to ensure that corporations and the wealthy pay some of the lowest tax rates in history. Here’s all you need to know about this Republican Party: one of their top priorities is repealing a tax that only affected families worth more than $11 million. Yes, you heard that right. The Republicans want to take money out of the pockets of the unemployed and give it to multi-millionaires.

Joe Biden has always had a gut instinct for these sorts of political fights. At a recent event, he went after the Republicans with gusto for opposing his popular proposal to raise corporate taxes. If Republicans want to reembrace the politics of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment, we must make them pay a price similar to the one Romney paid nine years ago.

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