WASHINGTON – In May 1970, Pat Buchanan offered President Richard Nixon some tips that hed never stop using. I strongly endorse symbolic gestures toward groups, wrote Buchanan, especially the blacks where symbols count for so much. To divide the country effectively, Nixon had to pretend that he wasnt dividing it at all. The President is President of all the people and while they will never vote for us, we must never let them come to believe we dont give a damn about them – or that they are outside our province of concern.
Forty-two years and four months later, an older, more widows-peaked Buchanan appeared on Fox News to explain the leaked video of Mitt Romney talking to donors. Had Romney stumbled when he wrote off the 47 percent of voters too dependent to vote Republican? No, said Buchanan. Barack Obama is a drug dealer of welfare. He wants permanent dependency, in my judgment, of all these folks.
As the 47 percent saga drags on, a sizable group of conservatives are telling Romney to stand by the argument. Romney is standing by it, probably the best of a bunch of bad options.
The big idea, on the right, is that as the ratio of takers to makers increases, America risks hitting a tipping point after which the takers will overwhelm the system. In 2009 and 2010, tea partiers bought bumper stickers and signs that read Redistribute My Work Ethic, Not My Wealth. When conservatives tell Romney to come out and say this, theyre revealing what blogger Julian Sanchez has called epistemic closure. They know this is true. Their trusted media sources tell them that its true. Why not talk about it?
Because 1970 Pat Buchanan told you so, thats why. Its fine for someone like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to suggest that America will collapse if more people dont start paying income taxes. But a presidential candidate has to pretend that hes reaching out to everyone, with hope and no prejudice. Neither Romney nor Obama expects to reach more than 51 or 52 percent of the electorate this year. Both of them want to max out turnout among the demographic groups that favor them. They just cant admit it.
Heres what I mean. Way back in November 2011, back when Newt Gingrich was going to be the Republican presidential nominee, the progressive Center for American Progress published a curiously optimistic paper about Barack Obamas chances. The presidents record was terrible. His 2008 coalition was fading as working-class whites sprinted from Democrats.
In 2012, Obama wouldnt have to worry so much about those voters, according to the liberal think tank. The new map would bring out more nonwhite votes than ever before, and more college-educated whites who hadnt joined the tea party. The underlying demographic composition of the white vote, wrote researchers Ruy Texiera and John Halpin, is likely to shift in Obamas favor in the 2012 election.
When Tom Edsall read this, he reported a straightforward New York Times analysis. Democrats, he wrote, were giving up all pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class. That appeared on the Drudge Report as NYT: Obama campaign set to abandon white working class. It bounced onto Fox News, where Bill Bennett told Sean Hannity that Obamas team may avoid the white working class Democrats and put their strategy somewhere else.
The Obama campaign hadnt actually said anything about the strategy. But it was true. Since that article was published, President Obama has come out in favor of gay marriage, deferred the Keystone XL pipeline, and instructed the Department of Homeland Security to lay off on deportations of under-30 illegal immigrants.
The strategy is obvious but unspoken. The obvious strategy isnt typically the strategy youre supposed to talk about.
You just deploy it. As Talking Points Memos Brian Beutler points out, Nixon took Buchanans advice and managed to make a class argument that divided the Democratic base.
One of his most effective TV ads attacked George McGovern on legislation that would have established guaranteed income for all Americans.
The McGovern bill would make 47 percent of people in the United States eligible for welfare, warned a narrator. Forty-seven percent.