In May of 1970, when he was a young former journalist working for the White House, Pat Buchanan offered President Richard Nixon some tips that he’d never stop using. “I strongly endorse symbolic gestures toward groups,” wrote Buchanan, “especially the blacks where symbols count for so much.” In order to divide the country effectively, Nixon had to pretend that he wasn’t 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 don't give a damn about them—or that they are outside our province of concern.”
Forty-two years and four months later, an older, more widow’s-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.”
Spot the difference! The younger, wiser Buchanan argued that a president (presidential candidate, in this case) should avoid telling voters just how much he needs them to splinter if he’s going to win. The new Buchanan, who’s been a pundit since Paul Ryan was listening to Led Zeppelin on a Walkman, is ready for a guns-a-blazing debate about lazy moochers versus broad-shouldered job creators.
It’s not just Buchanan saying this. 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, which is probably the best of a bunch of bad options. First of all, what would he gain if he said he was lying to a bunch of gullible rich people? And second, there’s a team of conservatives giving him terrible advice, telling him to make a general election message out of this story.
They’re saying what Pat Buchanan is saying. “Any Republican running for president has to acknowledge we’re not going to get that 47 percent of the electorate,” said Ann Coulter, who’s promoting a new book this month. “We could probably tell 40 states it’s very expensive, you don’t really need to vote. We just need to have 10 states vote. They’re the only one who we’re not sure about.”
On his Tuesday night show—the first to mention the tape—Sean Hannity credited Romney with “one of his sharpest critiques yet of President Obama and the entitlement society that he enables” and insisted that “conservatives and fiscally conscious Americans are applauding Governor Romney's statements.” On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called the video “a golden opportunity,” because “work is how you become independent,” and voters needed someone to tell them.
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,” and “Keep Working: Millions on Welfare Depend on You!” When conservatives tell Romney to come out and say this, they’re revealing what Julian Sanchez has called “epistemic closure.” They know this is true. Their trusted media sources tell them that it’s true. Why not talk about it?
Because 1970 Pat Buchanan told you so, that’s why. It’s fine for someone like Sen. Jim DeMint to suggest that America will collapse if more people don’t start paying income taxes. But a presidential candidate has to pretend that he’s reaching out to everyone, with hope and no prejudice. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack 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 can’t admit it.
Here’s 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 Obama’s chances. The president’s record was terrible. His 2008 rainbow coalition was fading as working-class white voters sprinted away from Democrats.
Lucky enough, in 2012, Obama wouldn’t 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 hadn’t joined the Tea Party. “The underlying demographic composition of the white vote,” wrote researchers Ruy Texiera and John Halpin, “is likely to shift in Obama’s favor in the 2012 election.”
When Tom Edsall read this, he reported a straightforward New York Times analysis with a catchy lede. 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 Obama’s team “may avoid the white working class Democrats and put their strategy somewhere else.”
The Obama campaign hadn’t 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 Republican National Convention was a love song to businessmen who “build that” and to Mitt Romney, family man. The Democratic National Convention was a checklist acted out by lifelike politicians and grateful citizens, thanking Obama for all the bones he’d thrown them.
The strategy is obvious but unspoken. Imagine what would happen if a vengeful waiter, or Richard Nixon’s angry grandson, recorded Obama at a fundraiser, dishing about his plan to drive up nonwhite and college-educated-white turnout, and win. That would hurt him, just like the “47 percent” tape hurts Romney. The obvious strategy isn’t typically the strategy you’re supposed to talk about.
You just deploy it. As Talking Points Memo’s Brian Beutler points out, Nixon took Buchanan’s 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.”