Playing The Class Card Could Get The Democrats Trumped

The ever-so-average working-class burgs of Pine Bluff, Ark., and Erie, Pa., have become key testing grounds for a Democratic counterattack on the GOP's Contract With America. For a week beginning on Apr. 11, the two towns have been bombarded with TV ads that blast two contract signers--Representatives Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) and Phil English (R-Pa.)--for cutting school lunches and education "so the wealthy special interests could get a tax break."

The objective of the campaign, funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is to convince the 50% of the nation with family incomes of $20,000 to $60,000 that the GOP favors the rich over working stiffs. If the ads sway swing voters, a national rollout is planned to help the

Democrats regain congressional majority and to hang on to the White House in 1996.

There's only one hitch: Class-based appeals usually fizzle. Recent polls find that voters identify more with Republican tax- and budget-cutting appeals than with Democratic carping that the well-to-do will gain at the expense of the masses. "Middle-class voters are more worried that Democrats will take from them to help the poor than that Republicans will take from them to help the wealthy," says Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus.

PAINFUL CUTS. Playing the class card has dangers. It could remind Reagan Democrats of the redistributionist policies that made them flee the party. But Democrats are willing to run that risk because rich-bashing seems the only tactic that stirs opposition to the Contract. Pollster Mark S. Mellman claims his surveys for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) show concern that GOP cuts will hurt the middle class. The problem, he adds, is that "we have not convinced voters that the Democrats will help the middle class."

And they never will, retort GOP strategists, who claim that class rhetoric resonates only among those making less than $25,000--a Democratic stronghold that accounts for 40% of America's families but less than one-third of voters. "The general public isn't falling for it," crows Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour.

That view is shared by some centrist Democrats. They fear that the party--still dominated by liberals--is reverting to class-warfare rhetoric when voters expect proposals for downsizing government. "It makes the party look simple-minded and horribly out of sync," sighs Democratic adviser Ted Van Dyk, a former aide to Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. "If we go with this next year, not only will we have a Republican President, but we'll have a veto-proof Republican Congress."

Foes of class-baiting include some White House economic advisers, too. Chief among them is Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, a Wall Street millionaire who has urged Clinton to attack the GOP contract as bad policy for all. An example: trumpeting that education cuts hurt U.S. competitiveness. But the President's advisers see class-warfare as a winner. And Clinton clearly favored the class warriors when he asked a crowd on Apr. 8: "Do you want a tax cut for the wealthy or for the middle class?"

Such lines always draw a roar from the Democratic faithful. Trouble is, they're likely to ring hollow this summer, when the Democrats may agree to a budget compromise including scaled-back tax breaks for high-income Americans. By '96, the GOP is betting, voters will have long forgotten the Contract's details--they'll just remember that the GOP cut taxes and spending, while the Democrats resisted out of "fairness" concerns. That's why Republicans can't wait for Election Day--the ultimate test of appeals to class consciousness.

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