Party of Rich Guys Suffers from Image as Party of Rich Guys

Losing is never good for your party's image, but Mitt Romney may have left the GOP in a particularly bad position by reinforcing the party's most unappealing characteristic. As a son of privilege worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Romney would have to have labored hard to convince voters he wouldn't just be a representative of his class, perhaps in the way George W. Bush did 12 years before (though buying a ranch, putting on a cowboy hat, and clearing brush might not have worked as well for Romney). Instead, he did just the opposite, again and again drawing attention to the fact that he was a rich guy representing a party of rich guys ("Corporations are people, my friends," "47 percent"). Combine that with the current argument over upper-income tax cuts, and Republicans are going to have a particularly difficult time in the near future convincing voters they have their interests at heart.

Not that this is a new problem. As John Sides explains, "Party images do not change quickly or easily. They reflect the accretion of political agendas and actions—big and small, symbolic and substantive." Nevertheless, over the years the GOP has successfully widened its electoral appeal to include some lower- and middle-class voters, but those are almost entirely white voters, and mostly in the South and lower Midwest (contrary to popular belief, Barack Obama performed perfectly well with white voters everywhere but in the South). They did it with a combination of racial and cultural appeals, some of which were more defensible than others. But their problem is that there just aren't enough voters who respond to those appeals about snooty coastal latté-sippers and parasitic welfare recipients to make a majority. Some thoughtful Republicans are trying to grapple with this issue, but the fact is that Republicans are always going to struggle with their image as the party of, by, and for the wealthy.

The reason that won't change is pretty simple: That's who they are. It isn't some kind of misleading image that liberal propagandists have created. It's the truth. And it gets renewed every time the GOP fights against increasing the minimum wage or campaigns for lower tax rates on the wealthy. Yes, some of it is the result of personalities like Mitt Romney, but it's mostly about the policies the GOP supports and the people it represents. It isn't that there aren't plenty of rich Democrats, because there are. But when they act politically, those rich Democrats are motivated primarily by their values and not their narrow class interests. On the other hand, rich Republicans appear to the public to be motivated mostly by their interests. They want their taxes cut, they want their businesses free to pay low wages and not give their workers benefits, and so on. There isn't a bright line between values and interests; those wealthy Republicans also believe to the bottom of their hearts that the preferential tax treatment of capital gains is morally righteous. But those policy preferences are not going to change, which means that in every election Republicans are going to be attacked—persuasively—as caring only about the wealthy.

We shouldn't overstate the degree to which this dooms Republicans. They'll win back the White House eventually, probably sooner rather than later (it's awfully tough for a party to win three consecutive terms, so the 2016 Republican nominee starts with some advantages). The good news for them is that despite the persistence of the parties' images, voters have short memories. If in 2016 the GOP nominates someone without a car elevator in his house—and most of the potential contenders are lifer politicians, not business tycoons—the issue could become a minor consideration. That's particularly true if the economy is in good shape and the class conflict seems less urgent.

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