Have Nots

How the Republican Obsession With 'Free Stuff' Could Backfire

Some Republican strategists are urging the party's presidential candidates to dial back the rhetoric.


Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks on Oct. 6, 2015, in New York City.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It has become a familiar Republican refrain. Senator Marco Rubio on Wednesday called the first Democratic debate a contest over “who was going to give away the most free stuff.” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie quipped Friday in New Hampshire, “There's gonna be more free stuff for more people than you can even imagine sitting and listening to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and the rest of the crew up there.”

Last month, Jeb Bush characterized Democrats' message to African-American voters as “get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff.” A few days earlier, Senator Rand Paul mockingly accused  Sanders of promising voters “free stuff.” In 2012, Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney told a voter, “If you're looking for more free stuff, vote for the other guy.”

These aren't rhetorical coincidences—the language reflects the strongly held beliefs held by many in the GOP base that spending on safety-net programs should be slashed, and that the Democratic Party is powered by minority and immigrant voters who leech off the government. 

“I think people need to tread carefully when it comes to that kind of language. We've had a long track record of Republican candidates characterizing the Democratic Party as offering voters free stuff. ... It hasn't seemed thus far to end well,” Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini said, citing Romney's “47 percent” comment to donors in 2012 and his later attribution of defeat to President Barack Obama as a result of the Democrat offering “gifts” to blacks, Hispanics, and young voters.

Ruffini argues that linking Democrats with free stuff “certainly will be a popular line in the Republican primary,” but doing so risks alienating minority voters, whom he said the language tends to be associated with, and with whom the GOP needs to improve its performance in order to win a general election. “You do kind of run the risk of slighting those groups of voters by saying they're only voting Democrat because they're being bribed,” Ruffini said. “So I think that aspect of it is not necessarily the most productive.”

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele participates in a debate between chairmanship candidates on Jan. 3, 2011, in Washington.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele participates in a debate between chairmanship candidates on Jan. 3, 2011, in Washington.
Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the GOP needs to be “less careless in our rhetoric” when it comes to low-income Americans.

“If you are a member of the working poor who's barely making ends meet and need some assistance—maybe food stamps, maybe child care—they don't consider that free stuff. They consider that necessary stuff so their family isn't broken up, so they're not sleeping in cars and park benches,” Steele said. “Be smart and careful about how you describe the plight of others, because there but for the grace of God go you. To judge their existence and how they're living their lives—we need to get out of that business and get in the business of offering self-empowerment and opportunities.”

The strategists' concern is that writing off public benefits as “free stuff” comes off as condescending to voters who are struggling economically and need help. In a candid postmortem of the 2012 election, the RNC said the “Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself” and “learn once again how to appeal to more people” outside its core ideological base. It urged future candidates to recognize that many Americans live in poverty. “To people who are flat on their back,” the RNC report said, “unemployed or disabled and in need of help, they do not care if the help comes from the private sector or the government—they just want help.”

'A racial flashpoint'

In 2013, the progressive research firm Democracy Corps conducted a half-dozen focus groups of Republican voters and spotted a trend that helps explain the profusion of “free stuff” rhetoric among conservatives. “They have an acute sense that they are white in a country that is becoming increasingly 'minority,' and their party is getting whooped by a Democratic Party that uses big government programs that benefit mostly minorities, create dependency and a new electoral majority,” the firm said in its report. “Barack Obama and Obamacare is a racial flashpoint for many Evangelical and Tea Party voters.”

Immigrants are also widely viewed on the right as beneficiaries of “free stuff.” By a margin of 73 to 17 percent, those identified as “steadfast conservatives” said immigrants “burden our country, taking jobs, housing and health care,” according to a Pew Research Center study released in June 2014. But that view is not shared by the larger U.S. population. In all, 57 percent said that immigrants “strengthen our country through hard work and talents” while 35 percent said they do not. 

In 2012, Obama made mitigating income inequality a centerpiece of his campaign platform. Capitalizing on the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, he painted Republicans as pawns of super-rich Americans who weren't paying their fair share in taxes. Conservatives responded by arguing that upper-income Americans pay most of the taxes and are subsidizing a bunch of moochers on the lower end of the spectrum.

Mitt Romney walks to the stage during a rally for Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan (not pictured) on Nov. 3, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska.
Mitt Romney walks to the stage during a rally for Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan (not pictured) on Nov. 3, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska.
Photographer: David Ryder/Getty Images

This was the context in which Romney was captured on a hidden camera telling donors that “47 percent” of Americans will always vote Democrat—those “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims” and won't “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” The current crop of GOP candidates adopting the “free stuff” talking points may be appealing to Republican donors who feel slighted by Obama's calls for higher taxes on the rich to fund a larger safety yet.

Given that Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, and her main primary rivals are promising to protect and expand upon Obama's policies, its not surprising that the Republican backlash has portrayed that platform as consisting of government giveaways. 

“There's a huge segment of the Republican base that's very worried about spending. That's where the Tea Party movement was born from,” said Katie Packer Gage, Romney's deputy campaign manager in 2012. For those voters, Gage said, the “free stuff” argument resonates. 

“Democrats are trying to turn it into race warfare, but I think it's broader than any one race in this country,” Gage said. “It's an issue of, who doesn't want free stuff? We'd all take free stuff if it were offered to us, I think. And the question is: is that the role of the federal government?”

Democrats respond

Asked to respond, the Democratic National Committee dubbed the candidates' language “hateful invective” that show the Republican Party is “falling over itself to alienate more and more Americans every single day.”

“Rubio, Bush and others have abandoned the dog whistle in favor of the bull horn in a cynical effort to distract from their policies that disproportionally prop up the very wealthy and powerful corporations. The only ones getting any free stuff are these candidates and their puppeteers,” DNC spokesman Michael Tyler wrote in an e-mail. 

QuickTake Entitlements

As one of the candidates calling for a stronger social safety net, Clinton last month characterized Bush's rhetoric about African-Americans and free stuff as “deeply insulting.”

“I think people are seeing this for what it is: Republicans lecturing people of color instead of offering real solutions to help people get ahead, including facing up to hard truths about race and justice in America,” she wrote in a Facebook Q&A. “Not to mention—Republicans have no problem promising tax breaks and sweetheart deals to their corporate friends, but when Democrats fight to make sure all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care, early childhood education, and job training, that's giving away 'free stuff'?! Talk about backwards.”

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