Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Democrats' middle-class problem


Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, Sen. Chuck Schumer made some news with a speech that was openly critical of his fellow Democrats for pushing ahead with Obamacare as if the earlier "stimulus" bill was all the economy needed. The proper way to view this speech is not so much a repudiation of Obamacare, the contents of which he said "are and will continue to be positive changes." Rather, it's as a big step toward repositioning the Democratic Party following its second midterm shellacking in a row, and ahead of the 2016 elections and the end of the Obama era.

Consider this passage from the National Journal account of Schumer's speech at the National Press Club last Tuesday:

"'After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle-class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus, but unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them,' Schumer said. 'We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem -- health care reform.'

"The third-ranking Senate Democrat noted that just about 5 percent of registered voters in the United States lacked health insurance before the implementation of the law, arguing that to focus on a problem affecting such 'a small percentage of the electoral made no political sense.'

"The larger problem, affecting most Americans, he said, was a poor economy resulting from the recession. 'When Democrats focused on health care, the average middle-class person thought, "The Democrats aren't paying enough attention to me,"' Schumer said."

The key word in that passage appears twice, but it isn't "health care." It's "middle class." The Democrats have a middle-class problem.

They don't like to hear this, but it's true. Consider the way another liberal, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, put it in a recent piece about why the white working class (WWC) backed the GOP by a 30-point margin in this year's midterms. The answer, Drum supposes, is that these voters are angry about the stagnating economy:

"So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn't matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That's because they're closer to it. For them, the poor aren't merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They're the folks next door who don't do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. ...

"And who is it that's responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

"This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class." (emphasis original)

Anger may be the right emotion, but I think he's misdiagnosed its cause -- and undercounted the group of people who fit into the category by limiting it to whites without a college degree.

When I talk to the people who express the kind of thoughts about welfare that Drum describes, they aren't only white, they aren't only those without college degrees, and they aren't "angry" at "the poor." They're angry that they have played by all the rules they were given when they were young -- get an education, work hard at a job, raise a family, etc. -- and they have stopped getting ahead, if they ever were.

These people, many of whom do vote Republican, look askance at two groups: the wealthy who are getting ahead, and what Drum calls the "undeserving poor." (That's an inapt phrase, actually: What I think he means is they are deserving of being poor and undeserving of the benefits they receive.) And in both cases, they resent the laws, and the politicians who made them, that have disproportionately helped these groups. This is the essence of the tea party, which railed against Wall Street bailouts just as much as against spendthrift welfare programs.

Here's the difference: While these people resent Wall Street bailouts, and loopholes and crony capitalism that benefit the well-heeled and well-connected, they recognize and respect the contributions the wealthy made along the way. They understand -- contra populist-mode Hillary Clinton -- that corporations create jobs, because many of them work at one of those corporations. They recognize that corporations generally have humble roots in entrepreneurship, and they want to see more success stories, not fewer. They just don't want the Microsofts, Googles, Boeings, etc. of the world to use that financial power to rewrite the rules in their favor. They blame Republicans in large part for collaborating in that effort. And a lot of Republicans understand this and have been preaching a center-right version of populism; see the talk about defunding the Ex-Im Bank, attacking subsidies for green energy firms, and lowering payroll taxes for working families, among other things. You can expect this to be a major theme in the 2016 elections -- unlike in 2012, when the GOP harped on President Obama's "you didn't build that" comment but didn't offer more than that to those who aren't entrepreneurs but rather work for them (or the companies they built).

But these people have no such recognition or respect for the "undeserving poor," or what others have called "moochers." As Drum notes, this does not encompass all of the poor; there is a distinction. Many of these people give their time and money to what I will call by way of distinguishing them (with my earlier objection to the phrase still in place) the "deserving poor." But they know all too well that there are plenty of people on the dole who could be contributing instead, and they resent that without any of the mitigating factors I described for those at the other, upper end of the income scale.

Yet up to and including last month's election, Democrats showed no understanding of, much less sympathy for, their attitude. In fact, Democrats were more apt to tell them they already cared for these people. Didn't we pass Obamacare for you? Never mind that, as Schumer indicated, the response from these voters was, No, you most certainly did not pass Obamacare for "me."

So the importance of Schumer's speech depends on the degree to which he was speaking for other Democrats and/or can talk them into sharing his belief. I have long thought the Senate Democrats would have been much more formidable -- and successful in both policy and politics -- had Schumer been majority leader rather than the feckless, cynical Harry Reid.

Chances are, I will still disagree with much of what Schumer would prescribe for the problem. But at least he understands the problem.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.