The once and future presidential contender Rick Santorum delivered a podium-pounding, populist speech early this month to the Conservative Political Action Conference, urging Republicans to focus their attention on Joe the Plumber and his proletarian brethren if they really want to recapture the White House for the G.O.P. “All we’re talking about is cutting taxes for high-income people—it doesn’t exactly connect emotionally,” said the former Pennsylvania senator, as he called for policy approaches with greater blue-collar appeal. “We are the party who has the policies that will work best for these folks.”
Thanks to Ronald Reagan, a sizable portion of the U.S. electorate agrees with Mr. Santorum. If you ask me, that is the Gipper’s greatest political achievement: convincing working-class Americans that the G.O.P. was on their side. I’m not necessarily saying that the Republicans aren’t on the side of working people. I do have an opinion about that claim, but what interests me more at present is the titanic late 20th-century shift in public perception, when the Republican Party went from being thought of as the party of Wall Street to being thought of as the party of Main Street. The Democratic Party of the 60s and 70s made that an easier sell. What many folks perceived to be the Democrats’ radical left wing antics alienated a lot of American workers; the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, they thought, had abandoned and perhaps even betrayed its blue-collar base. As the Democratic stalwart Tip O’Neill observed in the wake of the Reagan landslides: “The Democratic Party created the middle class in this country, but we no longer represent it.”
Just how did that happen? True, the implosion of the New Deal coalition was evident by 1980, but the “conservatization” of the American worker had been underway since at least the 1950s, the product of a collaboration in part between Mr. Reagan and a little known executive at General Electric, Lemuel Boulware.
Mr. Boulware was in charge of G.E.’s labor relations; and over a career that spanned 20 years, his take-no-prisoners, take-it-or-leave-it negotiating style was so effective that it inspired a corporate labor strategy still known as Boulwarism. Mr. Reagan met Boulware in the early 1950s, when the out-of-work actor was hired as G.E.’s corporate spokesman. In a big way, G.E. brought Reagan’s ideology to life, with Boulware as the mid-wife. He was the one who “came up with the idea of trying to change the politics of blue-collar America,” the Reagan historian Will Bunch once remarked. Boulware “wanted to wean blue-collar workers off of the New Deal politics of Franklin Roosevelt...toward a new politics of anti-Communism, patriotism and progress.”
As Mr. Reagan traveled about the country making endorsements and meeting G.E. employees, Boulware’s ideas began to crop up in his remarks. It was here, on “the mash potato circuit,” as Reagan called it, that he developed and honed what later Reaganites called “the speech”: a folksy yet forceful treatise on free enterprise, democracy, anti-Communism and patriotism, the same speech he would give in different forms and forums for the rest of his career. “Progress” was the theme, and for Reagan and Boulware progress meant whatever was good for G.E.
In “the speech” Boulware’s ideas found a sophisticated, eloquent and friendly expression. Ronald Reagan had the talent and the smarts (yes, the smarts) to take Boulware’s ideas—ideas that were not obviously in the interests of most workers—and convince people like Joe the Plumber that they were. That was no small feat, and Mr. Reagan’s success continues to pay dividends for Republicans today. No wonder we call him “the great communicator.”