How Republicans Co-Opted Populism

Bill Scher

As debate reignites between populist progressives and self-described “centrists” over why Democrats lost the midterms and how they should recalibrate, it’s worth recalling that Republicans won in part by co-opting populist positions and themes.

Sure, there were plenty of traditional Republican calls to cut spending and regulations. But those calls nearly always lacked specifics, knowing that firm positions to cut specific programs and roll back particular regulations would open Republicans up to charges of hurting the middle class and protecting corporate special interests.

Republicans got more specific, if not necessarily factual, in their populist swipes at Democrats.

A common attack was a 2010 throwback: Obamacare cut your Medicare.

As Politifact explained, “quite a bit of context is missing” from that charge. “Obamacare does not literally cut funding from the Medicare budget, but tries to bring down future health care costs in the program. Much of this is accomplished by reducing Medicare Advantage, a small subset of Medicare plans that are run by private insurers … those plans are actually costlier than traditional Medicare. So the health care law reduces payments to private insurers … The goal is get health care providers to increase their efficiency and quality of care instead of cutting benefits for seniors.”

In other words, Obamacare saves money in Medicare without cutting benefits. The Republican ads told voters the opposite.

This Crossroads GPS ad helped defeat Democratic Rep. Steve Hosford of Nevada, saying he voted “to keep Obamacare. It’s billions in Medicare cuts.”

Crossroads leveled similar attacks in several Senate races, helping to oust incumbent Democrats in Arkansas, North Carolina and Colorado and (in all likelihood) Louisiana.

Less bogus but still hypocritical were the Social Security attacks done by the National Republican Congressional Committee on Democrats who had expressed support for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

Republicans have long demanded Democrats accept the various proposals in Simpson-Bowles that would reduce benefits such as raising the retirement age. But they happily trampled on their own principles to launch effective populist attacks on Democrats.

The NRCC slammed Georgia Rep. John Barrow and Florida Rep. Joe Garcia for both the phony Obamacare Medicare cuts and the Simpson-Bowles Social Security cuts.

Republicans, who supposedly hate class warfare, were also not above excoriating Democrats simply because of their personal wealth. I previously reported on such attacks against Sen. Kay Hagan and New York congressional candidates Sean Eldridge and Aaron Wolf, all of whom lost.

The NRCC also pilloried long-time West Virginia congressman Nick Rahall for becoming “a multimillionaire” while in office, as the “Obama-Rahall War on Coal has been devastating for the rest of us.” And the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in an ad inspired by the 1980s Aspen-based TV soap opera of the rich “Dynasty,” characterized Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado as “wealthy, comfortable and established. Out of touch, but eager to stay in power.”

The populist current is still pulsing throughout the electorate. Democrats tapped it best in 2012, Republicans in 2014. Any strategy to win in 2016 will have to figure out what it will take to channel it again.

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