It’s become an article of faith among Republicans, and even some neutral commentators: By embracing the larger message of Occupy Wall Street, and by pushing issues of income inequality and tax fairness to the fore, Democrats risk alienating swing voters who will be turned off by angry populism and “class warfare.”
Dem messaging chief Chuck Schumer is having none of it.
In an interview with me today, Schumer vowed that inequality would be a central issue in the campaign that Dems would focus on “like a laser.” Schumer rejected the GOP idea that Occupy Wall Street would be a liability for Dems, claiming that Republicans who believe ads tying Dems to the protests would be effective are “inside their own bubble.” Whatever their view of the protesters themselves, he said, middle class Americans feel like “part of the 99 percent.”
Schumer said that a fundamental shift had occurred with the electorate’s perceptions of the economy, one directly related to the hollowing out of the middle class, that would make the electorate receptive to the Dem message about inequality in a new way next year.
“The number one fact of our political economy for the last decade is declining middle class incomes,” Schumer said. “When the American Dream is no longer a virtual certainty to most Americans, it becomes a different country...Inequality is a driving issue. What highlights inequality is middle class incomes declining.”
Schumer said that when middle class Americans are doing well, they don’t mind that those at the top are doing really well, too. “But when middle class incomes are declining and the top one percent are doing extremely well, that makes people say, `Wait a second. We have to do something about it.’”
Schumer added that growing public awareness about inequality would ensure that the 2012 elections would be different from 2010.
“Middle class incomes were declining,” Schumer said, speaking about the last elections. “But in 2010 Democrats were not seen as focusing on those issues, but rather seen as focused on health care, which was the right thing to do, but the benefits were not well understood by most voters. Republicans came in and said, `We can solve your problem by shrinking government.’”
“We tried their theory,” Schumer continued. “The American people resent government paralysis, but most of them would say that government is doing too little to help them, not too much.” Schumer added that Dems would make 2012 an “election of choice” in which Democrats are the ones focused on the “decline in middle class incomes.”
“It’s intuitive that we’re more interested in those issues, but obviously we have to focus on them like a laser,” Schumer continued. “If we do I believe the 2012 election, despite the economy being flat, is going to be a good one for us.”
Pressed on whether he thought Occupy Wall Street could become a liability for Democrats, as Republicans are trying to make happen by linking Dems to the protests, Schumer said focusing on the protests themselves misses the larger point.
“Occupy Wall Street has resonance far beyond the protests,” Schumer said. “Whether middle class people agree with the protests or not, the vast majority believes that they’re part of the 99 percent and that something should be done to help them.” Republicans who think this tactic will work with “swing voters,” Schumer said, are “inside their own bubble.”
Asked if Dems had erred both politically and substantively by adopting the GOP’s austerity frame and prioritizing the deficit after the 2010 elections, Schumer again disagreed. “There is a consensus that the government spends a lot of money wastefully,” he said. “I don’t think Democrats can ignore it.”
Schumer insisted that Dems had even managed to turn the deficit into a winning issue for them by insisting on shared sacrifice by the wealthy. “Even in the deficit argument, it’s swinging in our direction,” he said. “People want a balanced approach.” In other words, Dems can win on turf historically favorable to Republicans — the deficit — precisely because of the public’s growing preoccupation with inequality.
Shorter Schumer: It’s the inequality, stupid.