Recent headlines of interest from the campaign trail, class warfare division:
•The Washington Post: "President Obama Wants It Both Ways on Private Equity"
•The Hill: "Democrats Balk at Obama Campaign's Sustained Attack on Bain Capital"
•Buzzfeed: "Obama Bundler Decries Vilification of Private Equity"
•Politico: "More Dems Struggle on Bain"
•Boston Herald: "Deval Patrick Says Bain 'Not A Bad Company'"
The foregoing reports constitute a serious communications challenge for the president's reelection campaign. You see, degrading wealthy, "greedy" business owners, venture capitalists and private equity firms is the natural state of things for a tried-and-true community activist like Barack Obama. And it's so easy to pull off: Just demonize those with money to those without, and tell the latter they deserve more of the former's bounty. Presto, you have a vote!
It's worked time and again. It's the allure of progressivism — talk about the downtrodden in order to secure ever higher taxes, ever more regulation, ever more government. It's a perfect, circular rationale: There will always be unmet needs, so there will always be a demand for new revenue to pay for those needs. The campaign's continuing, unapologetic focus on Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital speaks to the historic success of the strategy.
But the wholesale indictment of private equity investment in general and Bain Capital in particular is running into trouble, and from all corners. Business Democrats are grumbling. The polls are problematic. More and more unemployed and underemployed Americans have stopped looking for work. A negligently pieced together economic stimulus has failed to spark job creation. And $5 trillion in new debt has garnered the attention of an increasingly nervous middle class.
Simply put, it's a particularly bad time to place capitalism on trial. In just about every state (with the predictable but unfortunate exception of Maryland), it's not a good time to attack the people and institutions that really do generate private-sector jobs.
The disintegration of the Occupy movement provides a timely predicate. Its disjointed list of demands (free college tuition, free health care, foreign debt forgiveness, mandatory wage scales, mortgage forgiveness from TARP-involved banks, a $20-per-hour minimum wage, and guaranteed full employment) may be rather unserious, but its unifying theme is clear: More government intrusion in order to even the societal playing field.
Interestingly, what is lost in the major media's generally positive reporting of the Occupiers is the movement's lack of impact on a watchful nation. The American middle class may be nervous about its economic prospects, but it is nevertheless unimpressed at best, and in many cases annoyed by the Occupy movement. The hygiene-challenged demonstrators of Wall Street fame simply do not inspire or incite the hardworking American middle class.
The reason for the disconnect is readily apparent when middle-class values are compared and contrasted to the words (let alone the slogans) of the Wall Street malcontents: the rent-a-cause protestors' abhorrence of all things market-driven and capitalistic is antithetical to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans who continue to strive for middle-class (or higher) economic status. To borrow a phrase, a clear majority of working Americans have skin in the game — they work hard and expect that their hard work will pay off in the long run. Such is the American Dream. They do not, however, expect a guaranteed result, particularly from the government.
The bottom line: Upward mobility and wealth creation remain the primary goals of most Americans. For the angry crowds of Occupy fame, not so much. They recoil from the hopes and dreams of all those entrepreneurial capitalists who regularly take a risk, start a business and make a buck. Maybe even buy an SUV.
The Obama campaign's aggressive attacks on all things Wall Street and the achievement of wealth as the result of hard work and success are guaranteed to excite its progressive base, a base that must show up in large numbers if the president is to be competitive in November. But public prosecution of the very forces that start and fund businesses may not yield similar results in the middle of the weakest recovery in the past 60 years.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics, and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is email@example.com.