Waiting for the GOP’s Populist Turn

If there’s one thing Americans hate, it’s an out-of-touch, elitist snob.

November 21, 2012

by Victor Davis Hanson (Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow)

Photo credit: the great 8

Dozens of explanations are circulating for why Mitt Romney and a number of Republican Senate candidates lost in the 2012 election.

The Republican Party is supposedly too white, too male, and too old. It purportedly does not reach out to minorities, women, and the young. Romney cared more about job creators rather than employees. The Republicans gratuitously picked social fights on abortion and homosexuality that needlessly alienated women, gays, and the young who otherwise might have supported its more important fiscal and national security agendas.

It apparently did not get out the white working class vote that wished not just to oppose Obama, but also to rally behind a likeable and personable conservative alternative of like nature. With half of the country on some sort of assistance, 47 million now on food stamps, and with disability insurance morphing into a de facto extension of unemployment insurance, too many voters are invested in the welfare state to vote against its purveyors.

So the various post-election analyses came and went.

All of this post-election recrimination is not new. Since the end of the Reagan presidency a quarter century ago, only two Republicans have won the popular presidential vote—George H. W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush in 2004. In both cases, the father-and-son wealthy scions of an aristocratic dynasty were nevertheless able to portray their liberal opponents as out of touch elites, and in some way unconcerned with the culture and economic challenges that faced most of America.

In 1988, the late—and now infamous—campaign manager Lee Atwater ran a bare-knuckles Bush campaign that successfully reduced Michael Dukakis to a sort of liberal seignior, whose Massachusetts parole policies logically had led to the early release of repeat murderers like Willie Horton, and whose efforts at catch-up populism ended up in ridiculous fashion with Dukakis wearing an ill-fitted helmet trying to look engaged as he clumsily navigated an Abrams tank. The implicit message was that Dukakis was far more at home in the boutique culture of Harvard Square than at a NASCAR event in southern Ohio—at least more so than even the  preppy Bush, who from time to time ate pork-rinds and liked to power-boat at high speeds in choppy waters.

Personality or Policy?

By 2004, the left had successfully caricatured President George W. Bush as a warmonger who got the country bogged down in a hopeless insurgency in Iraq, and as a big-spending conservative hypocrite, who shredded civil liberties to pursue Dick Cheney’s torture-based anti-terrorism witch hunts. In response, Karl Rove and the Bush strategists had, by November 2004, reminded the voters that in comparison to the Texas-accented Bush, who was photographed constantly in jeans chain-sawing scrub brush on his ranch, John Kerry was an out-of-touch Francophile grandee. Kerry, we were advised, seemed more comfortable in one of his wife’s many mansions, in spandex road-biking gear or ridiculously wind surfing in a wet suit. And his Dukakis-like strained efforts to play the common man—often in brand-new L. L. Bean-looking camouflage duck hunting attire—likewise backfired.

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