Romney’s misstep, introducing his new running mate as “the next President of the United States,” wasn’t surprising – he’s always been comically gaffe prone. But something else was. Both his and Paul Ryan’s speech on Sunday talked about poverty. Not poverty of sentiment or ideas, though that’s certainly present in both campaigns, but explicit mention that a sixth of Americans live in material poverty.
John Edwards, whatever you think of his character or choice of concubines, ran a primary campaign in 2008 focused on the disparities between the “Two Americas,” injecting critiques of inequality that hadn’t been seen within a race for president since Jesse Jackson’s runs in the late 1980s. Needless to say, Obama and Clinton, the sleeker neoliberal technocrats, had the advantage by staying away from such “class warfare.”
Successful liberals of the past decades have only mentioned welfare when they wanted to bash its perceived excesses. It was Bill Clinton who ended “welfare as we know it.”
This cycle, even with the emergence of Occupy, has been lacking sustained critiques of inequality. The injection of a right-wing ideologue in Paul Ryan should, logically, move the race rightward. But since his stances are so extreme, calling for exploding Medicare and deeper cuts into the rest of the social safety net, the Obama campaign has incentive to highlight Ryan’s radical stances on these popular programs.
The Medicare line is especially important in swing states with lots of seniors, like Florida. It’s one of the reasons why Democrats have been keen to help elevate Ryan to national prominence, against the wishes of key House Republicans. The starkness of Ryan’s ideology — the Ayn Rand-quoting doesn’t help — has opened him up to charges that he doesn’t care about anyone but the super-rich.
Romney campaign is eager to deflect this, so they’re going on the offensive, talking about poverty. Their solution to reducing it? More austerity, more tax cuts for the rich, and more economic growth through these neoliberal mechanisms. They use the language of populism to promote unpopular economic policies. Alberto Fujimori pulled it off in Peru. But in the process we’ll actually get mentions of poverty and working class hardship into campaign, which wouldn’t otherwise be likely when the more progressive candidate is an incumbent presiding over a slumping economy.
Of course, Obama isn’t exactly a stalwart defender of the welfare state. Ever the New Democrat triangulator, he’ll use Ryan’s extremism to position himself as the moderate committed to sensible, “targeted” savings. Yet it’ll be harder for him to actually execute these cuts after running as the foil to Romney-Ryan austerity.
We don’t know what policy will come of it, but maybe the emergence of a John Galt exalter will make this race more progressive than the last.