The other day I noted that the Koch brothers were funding a new effort to win over Latino voters to the Republican Party by offering them an array of community services, combined with a healthy dose of conservative anti-government re-education programs. This might not work, I argued, since Latino voters tend to agree with the Democratic Party on economic and health care issues, in addition to immigration, raising questions as to why telling them that government is bad for them would prove particularly persuasive.
But, via Politico’s Ken Vogel, it turns out that this series of programs is much broader and more ambitious than we previously knew:
The political operation created by the billionaire conservative mega-donors Charles and David Koch is quietly investing millions of dollars in programs to win over an unlikely demographic target for their brand of small-government conservatism ― poor people.
The outreach includes everything from turkey giveaways, GED training and English-language instruction for Hispanic immigrants to community holiday meals and healthy living classes for predominantly African American groups to vocational training and couponing classes for the under-employed. The strategy, according to sources familiar with it and documents reviewed by POLITICO, calls for presenting a more compassionate side of the brothers’ politics to new audiences, while fighting the perception that their groups are merely fronts for rich Republicans seeking to game the political process for personal gain.
The efforts include a healthy dose of proselytizing about free enterprise and how it can do more than government to lift people out of poverty.
As one Koch network official puts it: “We want people to know that they can earn their own success. They don’t need the government to give it to them.” That’s in line with the animating ideological idea behind the program to win over Latinos.
But this new campaign is about more than that. The effort to “present a more compassionate side” of the Koch brothers’ politics, Politico reports, is rooted in a theory of what went wrong in the 2012 election, as well as what to do about it:
Sources tell POLITICO that, in post-election strategy sessions, Charles Koch and his inner circle fixated on an exit poll finding that highlighted a so-called “empathy gap” that plagued GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Among voters seeking a candidate who “cares about people like me”, Obama clobbered Romney 81 percent to 18 percent ― by far the widest gap among the four traits commonly measured (the others are vision for the future, shares my values and strong leader).
“All we talked about post-2012 was that statistic,” said a former executive with one network group. “How Romney won on economics or national defense but lost like 80 to 20 on who cares about you. It spoke to a larger problem with the conservative movement. Romney just embodied that.”
As one official puts it: “Romney won on leadership. He won on the economy. He won on experience. What did he lose on? He lost on care and intent.”
This sounds like a variation on a widely-voiced post-mortem on 2012: Romney may have been seen as the better economic technocrat, but he lost because Democrats succeeded in caricaturing him — with some help from the Mittster himself — as a heartless plutocrat who doesn’t care about struggling Americans. Thus, the Koch inner circle were preoccupied with the “empathy gap,” and now hope to do a better job explaining the “virtues of economic freedom and individual liberty to people who are struggling,” as another operative puts it in the Politico piece.
Of course, this analysis neglects to reckon with the fact that polls actually showed that majorities of Americans came to believe that Romney’s policies were skewed towards the wealthy, rather than the middle class.
Sure, Romney’s “47 percent” remarks and his tendency to deride Democratic policies for buying off voters with “free stuff” probably made it easier to paint him as the plutocrat’s dream candidate. But remove Romney’s sneering tone from the equation, and how different is the economic vision underlying such comments from the economic vision espoused by the Koch brothers? Both are essentially animated by the notion that one of the primary problems struggling Americans face is that there’s too much government-engineered downward redistribution of wealth. Indeed, this is what Charles Koch essentially says outright: that government anti-poverty and regulatory policies are “shackles preventing all Americans, especially the disadvantaged, from pursuing their dreams.”
Eventually, the Koch network will throw its clout behind a GOP nominee who supports a tax plan that lavishes its largest windfalls on the rich; would repeal Obamacare’s coverage expansion for many millions and replace it with something that would almost certainly cover far fewer people; resoundingly rejects a minimum wage hike to keep pace with inflation; and pledges fealty to the Paul Ryan vision, which would block-grant safety net programs to the states, potentially “increasing poverty and financial hardship,” as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts it. Broadly speaking, the GOP candidates are already committed to a vision built around the idea that rolling back Obama’s redistributive policies, and unshackling runaway growth, is the way to jog loose stagnating wages and stagnant opportunity. As conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru recently put it: “Republicans do not seem to be even trying to erode the Democratic advantage on middle-class economics.”
And that’s fine! Let’s put this contrast before the voters — again. Obviously one doesn’t want to dismiss out of hand the possibility that there may be a backlash among swing voters to Obama’s government activism or that a candidate like Marco Rubio may effectively employ his humble background to sell conservative policies in a way Mitt Romney couldn’t. But right now, it seems doubtful that slathering the same old economic vision with fat from free turkeys will make it any easier to swallow.