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Class warfare no doubt works, but for whom?

Published Oct. 4, 2005

I never cease to be amused by Republican denunciations of "class warfare."

Whether it's Sen. Bob Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm or Rush Limbaugh, you can hear the Republican mantra, "Those Democrats are trying to wage class warfare again and that never works."

Au contraire, it has worked very well _ only Democrats call it "economic fairness" and used it from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt to build winning coalitions of working-class and middle-class voters across racial and regional lines. Republicans know. They are not above waging a bit of it themselves against welfare recipients, organized labor and the working poor. Apparently class warfare is all right from the Republican point of view, as long as it is waged downward, not upward.

It is precisely because Democrats frittered away their advantage on economic class-based issues that, after November's devastating defeat, they find themselves hurting in ways that would have been hard to imagine a couple of years ago. The latest analysis by the independent Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate concludes, "Nothing in (November's) election can be comforting to the Democrats." They lost not only their majorities in both Houses of Congress but also their voting power relative to Republicans in every region of the country, including the two regions they won, New England and the Middle Atlantic states.

Democrats know they're in trouble, too. One poll cited recently by House Democratic Whip David Bonior found a substantial number of voters actually identify the Democrats as the party of "the rich." That's like calling Jim "The Riddler" Carrey a serious Shakespearean actor.

The Democrats brought this on themselves, with a little help from their political enemies. In the 1960s, Richard Nixon, helped by his young advisers Kevin Phillips and Patrick Buchanan, developed his "Southern strategy" to reach white Democrats through racial backlash and working-class resentments. Soon the Republicans were transformed from big, mean corporate money barons and bigoted social conservatives to sweet, forward-looking populists, "regular Americans" crusading against the "big government" Democrats.

Clinton scored his biggest successes in 1992 when he spoke to "the forgotten middle class" and "ordinary Americans who work hard and play by the rules." Is that class warfare? Both played very well.

Democrats lost last year partly because Clinton's base was not energized in the off-year election while his opposition was. Dave Bositis, research director for the black-oriented Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, notes, for example, that Democrats did well in November in states like Florida and Virginia, where black turnout was up to help Gov. Lawton Chiles and hurt Senate hopeful Ollie North. Democrats did poorest in states like Ohio, North Carolina, New York and New Jersey where black interest and turnout was low.

After slapping organized labor in the face with his support for NAFTA and GATT, Clinton got slapped back with lackluster union support in November. More recently, he has been mending fences by supporting a minimum wage increase, a ban on striker replacement and closing our auto sales trade gap with Japan.

In The Emerging Republican Majority, a then-controversial 1970 book that now sounds prophetic, Phillips correctly diagnosed the Democrats as falling victim to "a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many (Roosevelt's New Deal) to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few (Lyndon Johnson's Great Society)."

Here's my prescription for Democratic victories in 1996: Reverse that image.

Steer away from direct confrontations over affirmative action, which is only a smoke screen for the real forces that are displacing high wage-earning white males. It is not women and minorities who are the root causes of growing anxiety, dread and anger among white males. It is the growing divide between rich and poor.

Clinton hasn't said much about these inequities, but I am sure he will. Startling Labor Department statistics released last week show that, despite a 2.1 percent rise in productivity over the 12 months ending in March, wages and salaries actually dropped by 2.3 percent.

You can tell how much Republicans are terrified of class-consciousness by how strongly they denounce it. Since last November's Republican "landslide" came with a 52-to-48 percent split, it doesn't take that many swing votes to tilt the balance. The important political question is not whether "class warfare" or, if you prefer, economic fairness, works. The question is which party can make it work best for them.

Tribune Media Services