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Memo to Dems: Call The GOP’s “Populist” Bluff

One party is passing legislation to help working-class voters. The other party is voting against it.
April 28, 2021
Memo to Dems: Call The GOP’s “Populist” Bluff
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

To: The Libs; Interested Parties
From: A New Friend
Re: Wedging the crap out of the new “working-class party” phonies

If you haven’t seen it yet, my padna James Carville is on one this week. In a Honey Badgeresque Vox interview, which was helpfully transcribed for the faculty-lounge Yankees who can’t decipher his clipped Cajun, Carville laid out the problems he sees with his party in the wake of a narrow victory over a “world-historical buffoon” that also resulted in the loss of congressional seats.

Carville’s concern is a practical one: An imbalance in the Senate, Electoral College, and to a lesser degree the House gives working-class white voters disproportionate sway in our politics. That’s just a fact. And it isn’t going anywhere, no matter how it makes you feel.

Democrats who want to win campaigns need to come up with a plan to address this fact and not just fantasize about Joe Manchin getting hit by falling piano, suffering amnesia, and waking up wanting to end the filibuster, add three new states, and coin a new tagline for Ocean Breeze soap.

As Carville says:

Here’s the deal: No matter how you look at the map, the only way Democrats can hold power is to build on their coalition, and that will have to include more rural white voters from across the country. Democrats are never going to win a majority of these voters. That’s the reality. But the difference between getting beat 80 to 20 and 72 to 28 is all the difference in the world.

The last sentence is the key. He’s not suggesting Democrats try to dominate rural America. But he recognizes that, as a matter of national political survival, Democrats must claw back part of their old coalition.

His advice for doing it:

  • Get Democratic politicians to talk like normal humans and not panelists at an Amherst conference on gendered labor in remigration.
  • Do to the insane House Republican caucus what the GOP did with the Squad.
  • Improve the branding around liberal priorities and the Biden agenda.

I concur on all three, but I’d like to revise and extend the third item. Because Democrats don’t just need to do a better job branding the benefits of the Biden agenda.

They need to make the “working class” Republican party pay for opposing them.

From my vantage point Republicans are giving the left a massive opportunity to wedge them.


Following the 2020 defeat the Republicans plan for moving forward is to

  • Retain the losing Trump coalition by pampering the Orange God King and rubbing his voters on the belly with tales of how they really won and fantasies about transgender socialist devils stealing their hamburgers.
  • Abandon the Red Dogs and suburban swing voters by doubling down on insurrection and insanity.
  • Pick high-profile culture-war brawls with popular brands and businesses.
  • Take their dominance with working-class white voters across the racial divide, expanding on their 2020 success with Latino voters.
  • Change the voting rules in hopes of suppressing the Democratic vote total, particularly among the working-class minority communities they claim to be trying to reach. . . . Er, excuse me, change the voting rules to make the election more “fair.”


In sum, the Republican plan is to stick with the Trump coalition, hope to attract some working-class minorities, and make it harder for Democratic groups to vote.

You might not like that plan, but it’s viable. There’s a path to victory for Republicans there—especially in the midterm but absolutely in 2024, too. There’s only one weakness in it. Are you ready?

Republican politicians tried to stop Biden’s (popular) programs which help working-class voters.

Sure, they have gone hard-populist on cultural issues—as God is their witness, they’ll never cave on trans athletes (well, almost never). They will rant and rave about Dr. Seuss’s self-cancelation. But what are they gonna do? Tell voters, “Vote for me and I’ll pass a law forcing the Seuss estate to publish everything, forever.” Promise to hold a hearing about drag-queen story hour?

On the real parts of populism—the parts where legislators vote on bills that change the tax code or give working parents a benefit to help pay for the cost of raising kids—Republicans are in large part still stuck in the Tea Party / Chamber of Commerce days.

If anything, Republicans are sitting in the sour spot of populist economics. You get Marco Rubio tweeting that he wants to use the government to punish woke corporations if they don’t support his conception of the “common good”—but then he’s going to oppose Biden’s attempt to raise the corporate tax rate in order to fund a bigger social support network for workers.

If Democrats can’t make a guy like Rubio pay for those conflicting positions, then they’re going to lose at least the House. And they’ll deserve to.

Because Republicans are going to be in the position of being anti-corporate when it comes to popular companies endorsing popular issues and pro-corporate when it comes to companies keeping the former guy’s tax breaks.

At least Josh Hawley is putting some meat on his kayfabe, proposing a $1,000 cash bonus for families with kids under 13 (alongside his lonely vote against legislation aiming to address anti-Asian hate crimes). But that’s not going anywhere. And the main body of the GOP will never get behind it—especially not when it would be Joe Biden signing the deal in the Oval Office.

This disconnect between the Republicans’ new coalition and what they are willing to actually support hands the ice pick to the Democrats and begs them to use it.

Politics is about expanding your coalition while creating wedges in the other side.

A Navigator poll in February showed that half of Republicans making less than $50,000 a year were worried that the government would not do enough to help regular people suffering from COVID-19 fallout.

And then every Republican voted against Biden’s American Rescue package.

How do Democrats take advantage?

(1) It starts with Carville’s suggestion about branding the Biden agenda. Yes there were the $1,400 checks. But what else was in the COVID package? What are the three items in either the rescue package or the infrastructure bill that workers can grasp and know are improving their lives? Can non-political obsessives answer that question right now? I don’t think so. Democrats need to change that ASAP. Biden will have a first crack at that in tonight’s big speech.

(2) Dare the Republicans to live up to their rhetoric. Can’t get a $15 minimum wage through Manchin and Sinema? Then cut a deal that gets them on board for a smaller number. Call Cotton’s bluff on his $10 minimum wage proposal by offering a $12 or $11 compromise and watch him buckle. Do the same with Ernst, Lee, and Rubio on Paid Family Leave.

(3) Find the most tangible, popular items with working-class voters. Not bullshit pablum about economic security—we’re talking about actual benefits. Get them into legislation, get them voted on—and then relentlessly crush any Republicans who opposes them. In the case of the popular stuff that was already in the American Rescue Plan, every single R is already on the hook.

(4) Figure out how to tell this story inside the R information bubble. Yes, that means ads—but if you wanna get really crazy, go on Fox and talk about it. If the host badgers you about “fiscal responsibility” and “pay fors” then you’re doing the wedge thing right.

Put in a more Twitter friendly format:

Push economic agenda items that are popular with working-class voters. Watch Republicans vote against them. Beat them over the head with these votes. Ignore all the faculty lounge/Latinx bullshit. 🚀🚀🚀💎🙌

Every single day Democrats should wake up and ask themselves, “What am I doing to make sure working-class voters know exactly how we helped them—and how Republicans tried to stop us?”

As a former Republican, is this my dream politics? Not really, no.

Do I wish we could create a big, beautiful technocratic centrist party that was restrained in its view of what government could do effectively? That paired new programs with cutting wasteful ones? Sure thing.

But at the moment, that’s just a fantasy, no more realistic than the progressive dream of killing the filibuster and moving 150,000 liberals to Cheyenne.

Make the GOP own the insurrection and the bigoted, conspiratorial crazy in the suburbs. And make them own blocking economic help in working-class communities. Be relentless about it. That’s the whole ballgame.

Because here’s the thing: Republicans are betting that working-class whites only care about the culture-war populism and don’t actually give a crap about populists economics.

Now maybe that’s right and maybe Republicans will be able to ride online cancel culture to victory while also fighting to make sure that Mark Zuckerberg never pays a dime more in taxes.

And if they are right, then you’re probably screwed.

But if Democrats are going to have any hope of growing their coalition further, the best move on the board is to try to bring the R-margins among working-class white voters down a few points. Shift the GOP margins with these folks from Saddam Hussein-level blowouts to normal levels of dominance. Move from 80-20 to 72-28.

If it works, that shift, combined with maintaining the existing Democratic majority would be enough to net a few Senate seats in 2022 and go into 2024 with a winning coalition that Joe Biden is better suited to hold together than basically any other living politician.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.