The Nation: It's Not Really About The Working Class

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Guests watch a live C-SPAN broadcast as Republican presidential Rick Santorum speaks at a town hall meeting in an adjacent room in Marshalltown, IA. i i

Guests watch a live C-SPAN broadcast as Republican presidential Rick Santorum speaks at a town hall meeting in an adjacent room in Marshalltown, IA. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
Guests watch a live C-SPAN broadcast as Republican presidential Rick Santorum speaks at a town hall meeting in an adjacent room in Marshalltown, IA.

Guests watch a live C-SPAN broadcast as Republican presidential Rick Santorum speaks at a town hall meeting in an adjacent room in Marshalltown, IA.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ben Adler is a contributing writer at The Nation, reporting on Republican and conservative politics and media. He previously covered national politics and policy for Newsweek, Politico and the Center for American Progress.

Political reporters and pundits — especially conservatives — often fail to appreciate the distinction between political strategy and substantive policy. That's why so many conservative media outlets falsely asserted that President Obama was planning to "abandon the working class" when they got wind of a Center for American Progress report laying out how Obama could win re-election without winning the white working class vote.

Now Rick Santorum is talking about economic opportunity and the importance of manufacturing jobs, so mainstream reporters and conservative commentators have dubbed him a candidate for the working class. Here's The Washington Post:

"In a speech capping off his near-win in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, he made plain he wants to introduce another side to New Hampshire voters: Rick Santorum, economic populist.

He insisted that conservatives must make clear they care about the problems of the working-class and not just cut taxes...

He can do it, he said, with a tax plan that eliminates the corporate income tax for manufacturers, in an effort to lure factories back from overseas."

The article describes Santorum's political strategy to win over working class voters without raising the key question: does Santorum actually propose to do anything that would benefit the working class? No, of course he doesn't. Santorum's agenda is an extremely right wing collection of conservative hobbyhorses. Look at Matthew Yglesias' breakdown Santorum's 12-point tax plan: They're a bunch of typical Republican proposals that have no particular relevance for the working poor. His proposals include the usual Republican tax cuts for the rich to incentivize investment and for families to incentivize procreation. There's no mention of even using tax cuts — such as the Earned Income Tax Credit — to lift working people out of poverty.

The Post treats a plan to eliminate corporate taxes as a credible plan to heal the economic wounds of working class people without even bothering to ask, much less assess, he would actually impact the average working American. For the vast majority of Americans who no longer work in manufacturing, his plan is quite a bank shot. Santorum's idea springs from a fundamentally outdated notion of the American economy: that men can work in heavy industry while their wives stay home and raise the kids. That socially traditionalist image is appealing to Santorum, but it's no longer the world we live in. And it fails to take account of technological changes that have made manufacturing less labor intensive. We are losing manufacturing jobs to more than other countries: automation means that we can produce more goods with fewer workers. By taking Santorum's strange proposal at face value the Post treats a rather implausible claim as presumptively credible.

Meanwhile The New York Times' duo conservative op-ed columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks heap praise on Santorum's supposed concern for the working class. "The former Pennsylvania senator's emphasis on social mobility, family breakdown and blue-collar struggles spoke more directly to the challenges facing working Americans than any 9-9-9 fantasy or flat-tax gambit," writes Douthat, who apparently hasn't actually bothered to look at Santorum's tax plan.

Brooks devoted an entire column on Tuesday to praising Santorum for speaking for the interests of the Republicans' largest constituency, the white working class. "The Republicans harvest their votes but have done a poor job responding to their needs.... Enter Rick Santorum.... His economic arguments are couched as values arguments: If you want to enhance long-term competitiveness, you need to strengthen families. If companies want productive workers, they need to be embedded in wholesome communities." That's all very sweet, but it's just empty rhetoric. Brooks fails to identify a single concrete proposal Santorum makes that would do anything tangible for the working class. That's because Santorum doesn't have any. So Brooks starts by acknowledging that Republicans cater to that demographic rhetorically but not substantively, and then swoons over Santorum for doing exactly that.

Conservative columnists and reporters like to listen to rhetoric and talk in generalities because it's easier than actually examining proposals. But it doesn't take a master's degree in public policy to see that Santorum's tax plans are regressive.

For most of the economic challenges facing working Americans, Santorum's policies are simply generic Republican corporatism. Take health insurance: Santorum would repeal "Obamacare" and do virtually nothing to insure the uninsured or contain costs. He merely offers the same proposals Republicans trot out every four years to please corporate contributors and sound like they have a plan. His scheme — tort reform to reduce the cost of malpractice insurance, allowing insurance across state lines and health savings accounts — would do little to address the problem for people with prior conditions or high health care costs.

When it comes to the other challenges to upward mobility, or even just getting by, that blue collar workers face, Santorum offers nothing, or worse. Say you're worried about the cost of sending your kids to college: Santorum has literally no policy prescription to address that problem. But his overall promise to cut domestic social spending would presumably mean even less federal help for college tuition. It would also mean less federal help with basic necessities for people who lose their jobs, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

The totality of Santorum's domestic policy agenda is to cut spending. This shouldn't even pass for conservative economic populism. I'm willing to concede that one can demonstrate concern for the poor not just by spending more but by proposing to reorient programs to make them more effective or to make their goals empowerment rather than dependency. But Santorum doesn't have any such ideas; he just wants to steal from the poor to give to the rich. Specifically, he proposes to, "Freeze spending levels for social programs for 5 years such as Medicaid, Housing, Education, Job Training, and Food Stamps, time limit restrictions, and block grant to the States like in Welfare Reform." Santorum also proposes to cut funding for the National Labor Relations Board as a punitive measure for making a decision he dislikes.

The especially sad irony is that these sorts of spending cuts will save a small amount of money compared to, say, the amount we've blown on the Iraq invasion that Santorum supported. The real savings will come from his plan to cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age and means-test it, as well as adopting Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare.

How can Douthat and Santorum claim with a straight face that this constitutes some sort of plan to help the working class? How can news reporters write that Santorum seeks to be the working class candidate without noting that his policies would snatch the social safety net out from under them?

Rick Santorum has nothing to offer the working class except his ideological contention that tax cuts will magically create jobs that pay you enough to meet your needs. If that's what passes for a working class candidate in today's GOP, I'd like to see their idea of an economic royalist.

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