Lee Atwater, who mentored many of the Republican party’s most senior operatives, used to say that his party tends to win elections when they are framed around populist social issues and Democrats are successful when elections turn on populist economic ones. By “populist,” Atwater meant those issues that tend to pit the masses against the “elites,” a frame that can work for social and economic issues. Opposition to gay marriage can be framed as defending the sacred institution of marriage against the liberal elites who would disgrace it; similarly, middle-class tax breaks can be marketed as recompense from the avarice of the rich. Social versus class war is a simplistic, but still useful way to summarize the last 40 years of American politics.
Where might these undercurrents of American politics be dragging us today? I have argued before that the continued economic downturn and growing income disparity makes economic populism the more likely battleground in 2014 and 2016 than the “guns, gays and God” that has long characterized the Republican brand of social populism. But who will seize the populist economic argument and how will it be shaped? The tea party frames it as an epic struggle of individual freedom against government intrusion, a message which isn’t new certainly but one Republicans hope is given new urgency by the botched roll-out of the new health law. (If Cuccinelli comes close in Virginia’s gubernatorial race today, that should be seen as evidence of the energy in running against Obamacare.)
The potential Democratic message isn’t so clear; despite rumblings, there has been no sustained economic movement from the left since Occupy Wall Street introduced the concept of the one percent as shorthand for the skewing of wealth distribution in America. While there is certainly an opening now for an economic populist to run to the left of a more establishment candidate like Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, it is unclear whether a candidate (like Elizabeth Warren) will emerge. And both recent searing events in American politics may benefit Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy and her emerging message of “can’t we all just get along?” The government shutdown and the health care sign-up woes have created an opening for a candidate’s call to rise above the populist wars and seek a more pragmatic center where government works again.