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Why Republicans are starting to sound like Elizabeth Warren

Just a bunch of poverty-fighters
Just a bunch of poverty-fighters
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In February 2012, Mitt Romney told CNN he's "not concerned about the very poor." But the 2015 edition of Romney "wants to make tackling poverty … one of the three pillars of his campaign." Jeb Bush is framing his 2016 campaign around social mobility, naming both his PACs "Right to Rise." And at its summit this week, Heritage Action left the red meat of Obamacare and Obamnesty off the agenda in favor of repositioning conservatives. Heritage president Jim DeMint said conservatives are "the real progressives in Washington ... fighting against the status quo" and "showing Americans how we can progress to a better future."

While the policies haven't shifted much, the rhetoric has, with talk of those left behind in recent years a far cry from the business owner triumphalism on display at a 2012 GOP convention that at times seemed monolithically focused on exploiting Barack Obama's alleged "you didn't build that" gaffe. Today's Republican — even when they're literally the same people as the ones who ran a few years ago — arguably sound more like Elizabeth Warren, offering an outsider critique of an economic status quo. And that's no coincidence.

Everything is awesome

Michael Grunwald trolled the reading public with a Christmas Eve Politico Magazine story arguing that "everything is awesome" in America this winter. It's obviously an overstatement, but it reflects the very accurate reality that after years of grindingly slow economic recovery, things are picking up. We've seen accelerating job growth, cheap gas, and GDP numbers with some real bounce. Whatever you want to say about the economy today, it is a lot better than the economy of two or three or four years ago. You've seen that reflected in the Obama administration's rhetoric, and you're certain to see it on full display in the State of the Union address later this month.

The conservative site Newsbusters deemed the piece outrageous and Elizabeth Warren framed her most recent major policy address as a critique of its thesis.

Structurally speaking, the two main out groups in American politics today - the left wing of the Democratic Party and the mainstream of the Republican Party - are facing a common problem. After years of intense crisis, things are clearly getting better. That leaves them pivoting toward the same thing: the short-comings of the recovery - a lack of opportunity at the bottom or the rise of inequality at the top.

But an intra-party fight for the ideological future is very different from a presidential campaign against an incumbent party. There's good reason to believe that rhetoric that makes sense for the Warren Wing Democrats is a dead-end for DeMint and his fellow conservatives.

A tough sell

It makes sense that left and right are converging on this narrative, but that doesn't make it a winning strategy. Lynn Vavreck's book, The Message Matters, is by far the best analysis of the interplay between campaign messages and economic fundamentals. In her terms, 2012 was a classic mixed-economy scenario in which both sides — rightly — did their best to argue their case about the merits of Obama's economic stewardship.

But if the recovery really does continue strengthening, forcing Republicans to pursue what Vavreck calls an "insurgent" campaign strategy, harping on the poor is unlikely to work. An insurgent's task has three steps:

  1. Setting the agenda on something other than the economy
  2. Persuading voters the insurgent has a novel position on the issue
  3. Clarifying and framing the insurgent stance in a popular way

The poverty and opportunity frames may work for Warren's intra-party factional fight, but they essentially fail for Republicans on all three fronts. They don't really change the conversation from the economy, it cuts against the existing Republican brand, and it doesn't tie in to any notably popular Republican policy positions.

A difficult task

The greatest recent example of a successful insurgent is George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, which shows both where the GOP-Warren mind-meld goes wrong and also simply how hard it is to get this right. Faced with the strong economic climate of the late 1990s, Bush employed several strategies. One, he distanced Al Gore from economic success, emphasizing divided government and the large role of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan who he promised to keep on.

Then he changed the subject to a completely different set of issues — restoring "honor and dignity to the White House," military preparedness, and management of K-12 schools. His agenda for steep tax cuts was framed as a common sense corrective to budget surpluses rather than an economic growth model. It was clever and it worked.

Sort of.

Bush, famously, received fewer votes than his opponent even though Gore simultaneously had to fend off a Ralph Nader campaign to his left. And he benefitted from the fact that even though the media didn't really recognize it at the time, the economy was already slowing by late 1999.

All of which is to say that it's objectively hard to beat the incumbents when things are going well. The good news for Republicans is that the signs of recovery — though real — are still somewhat preliminary and it's a long way from November 2016. There's plenty of time for things to take another turn for the worse.

But if they don't, trying to sell themselves as the real progressives on economics isn't an especially promising means of coping.