Don't Mourn, Mobilize

It's getting harder and harder to be middle class. As a result of the Bush administration's relentless tax-cutting agenda -- designed to limit the ability of government to deliver services -- the lives of middle-class Americans are becoming more difficult and less secure, in areas from health care to pensions to public schools. But, in the immortal words of Bob Dole, "Where's the outrage?" Why have these attacks not provoked a greater political reaction? And what chance is there for a progressive middle-class response to these attacks in the future?

This lack of outrage seems particularly odd because the middle class is aware of the attacks upon it. People in general, and the middle class in particular, believe that Bush-administration policies have favored the interests of large corporations and the rich over those of ordinary people and the middle class. An early January CBS News poll found that, by huge margins, the public thought that Bush administration policies favor the rich (57 percent) rather than the middle class (11 percent), the poor (1 percent), or all groups the same (25 percent). By a nearly 2-to-1 margin (58 percent to 30 percent), the public said that George W. Bush is more interested in protecting the interests of large corporations than those of ordinary Americans. And by almost 3 to 1 (64 percent to 23 percent), the public thought big business has too much influence, rather than the right amount, on the Bush administration.

Research repeatedly shows that middle-class views track those of the general public very closely, both because of the middle class' large size and its political positioning (between the poor and the rich). But we don't have to merely assume that the middle class shares these jaundiced views of the Bush administration's policy bias. Where available, data for middle-class subgroups within surveys confirm this. In an April 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57 percent overall said that Bush's proposals on cutting taxes favored the rich, while 11 percent said that they favored the middle class. These figures are almost exactly the average of the two income breaks that best capture the middle class ($30,000 to $50,000 and $50,000 to $75,000). In the same poll, 61 percent thought that large business corporations had too much influence on the Bush administration, compared with just 8 percent who thought that they had too little -- again, almost exactly the average of the two middle-class income brackets. And in a March 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 67 percent overall thought that Bush cared more about protecting the interests of large business corporations, compared with 26 percent who thought that he cared more about protecting the interests of ordinary working people -- almost exactly the result for the middling education category of "some college."

Is it possible, though, that the middle class recognizes that the Bush plan doesn't serve it well but still believes, on balance, that the policy's relative priorities are the right ones? That is most emphatically not the case, either. The middle class consistently and overwhelmingly rejects the prioritizing of tax cuts over social investment. In the April 2003 ABC News poll, the two middle-class income brackets averaged 70-percent support for spending more on domestic programs -- like education, health care, and Social Security -- and 28-percent support for cutting taxes. These respondents also said, by 64 percent to 27 percent, that cutting taxes is more important to Bush than providing services, while, by 68 percent to 30 percent, they said that providing services is more important for them personally than cutting taxes. Indeed, no matter how the general trade-off between tax cuts and social investment is framed, middle-class priorities seem consistently skewed toward investment and away from tax cuts.

These findings raise troubling questions. How did the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts pass with so little middle-class support? Why did the Bush administration believe it could get away with flouting middle-class priorities so ostentatiously? And why has there not been -- at least as yet -- a middle-class backlash? In some ways, the middle class seems like Calvin in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, where the boy's mother asks him, after a particularly egregious act of household mayhem, "Don't you have any common sense?" Calvin replies, "I have plenty of common sense, I just choose not to use it."

When it comes to the middle class, how can it be that it has plenty of common sense about where its interests lie but chooses not to use it? The beginnings of an answer are provided in an important forthcoming book, Off Center: George W. Bush, Tax Cuts, and the Erosion of Democracy, by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. Noting that the 2001 tax cut was "radically at odds with clear, firm, and considered public opinion," Hacker and Pierson ask how it passed against the views of the "median voter" -- which can usefully be thought of here as the average member of the middle class -- and with little apparent fear of political retribution.

Their answer is that the political environment in the United States has changed in two basic ways. The first is that politicians in this money-driven era are motivated to reward their base, including partisans, activist groups, and the wealthy. That's a good way to avoid primary challenges, which tend to come from the base and are the chief re-election danger for many incumbents. Pleasing the base also means that incumbents will receive high levels of financial and interest-group support, ensuring their ability to beat back general-election challenges. In this formula, the preferences of average middle-class voters get short shrift.

The second change in the political environment is that, more and more, politicians are able to avoid the electoral consequences of displeasing average voters. Most obviously, the number of competitive elections has declined and the ability of unions and other local, grass-roots organizations to punish incumbents has decreased. Less obviously, but just as important, legislation has become more complex and polling more sophisticated, making it easier to hide large drawbacks of new legislation from voters and highlight small benefits instead. Together these changes mean that legislators gain more and lose less from ignoring the typical middle-class voter.

In the case of Bush's tax policies, the cuts were at odds with the preferences of the middle class but very consistent with the preferences of the GOP base, especially its very wealthy base of political donors. For Republican incumbents who wanted to stay incumbents, that was a powerful incentive to stiff the middle class and to support the cuts. At the same time, the GOP was able to evade middle-class anger by systematically misrepresenting the cuts' middle-class benefits, understating their impact on budgetary balance, hiding their effects on budget priorities, and minimizing their total cost through phase-ins, sunsets, time bombs, and other accounting sleights of hand. As a result, the middle class never really understood how seriously these tax cuts went against its preferences, vigorous middle-class opposition never emerged, and the cuts could scrape through Congress with party-line support.

So, how can the middle class be motivated to act on its interests? That's the key question for Democrats, and they should look to the tax-cut disaster for answers. The first lesson is that the middle class, in the face of its own interests being contravened, will not activate itself. That may have worked in the past, but today the middle class must be activated through conscious political mobilization.

The second lesson is that Democrats must relentlessly counterattack when Republicans misrepresent Democrats' policies and try to hide their negative aspects. It is now clear that the GOP shows no respect for the historic limits on such misrepresentation. Democrats have to work just as hard to clarify the issues. That means, for example, making the trade-offs between tax cuts and social spending come alive for middle-class voters. Though they tried, Democrats failed to focus middle-class voters on a concrete choice between tax cuts and a specific social program or goal. The problem wasn't that Democrats failed to mention the idea that the tax cuts might affect other budgetary priorities; it was that they mentioned too many. Some dwelled on the cuts' impact on the deficit. Others focused on education, health-care programs (especially a possible Medicare prescription-drugs benefit), or homeland security. But there was no unified voice focusing over and over on how passage of the tax cuts would preclude one specific goal or hurt one specific program that middle-class voters believe in.

Bill Clinton and the Democrats did this successfully in 1998, when they insisted on "saving Social Security first." Even if some aspects of this strategy were flawed -- the emphasis on the "lockbox" for the Social Security trust fund, for example, and the eventual obsession with debt-reduction -- there is no doubt the Democrats' unified focus on a popular program gave middle-class voters a clear choice: tax cuts or saving Social Security. And that worked politically.

They need to do that again. When opposing Republican tax cuts, Democrats will naturally and justifiably mention a range of social investments that these cuts will preclude. But to rally middle-class opposition to the cuts, Democrats need to rally around one alternative priority that gets top billing. That could be "funding health care first" or "defending the homeland first" or "putting good schools first." The important thing is for that alternative to be simple, clear, and popular. If what the middle class hears instead is a diffuse list of spending alternatives, it will allow the GOP to focus attention on the (shamelessly exaggerated) middle-class benefits of its proposed tax cuts. And we already know how that one comes out.

Such strategic unity is a difficult task. But it is a prerequisite to activating middle-class self-interest and, therefore, a necessity, not an option. Democrats, it's time to get to work.