Voters were angry and frustrated and confused, and Republicans capitalized on that confusion. Even as Wall Street shifted its support toward the GOP, Republicans ran on a populist, anti-establishment platform. The main feature of this platform was an attack on the "bailouts," a phrase they skillfully used to refer to both TARP and the economic stimulus package, thereby tarring that mix of tax cuts and spending with the deep unpopularity of the bank bailouts that both parties had agreed to in late 2008. The brazenness was breath-taking: Club for Growth-backed candidates running as anti-Wall Street crusaders. But it worked. A wave of Wall Street-backed Republican freshmen swept into office under the guise of pitchfork-wielding insurgents. In mid-2011, I met one of them, Georgia’s Tom Graves, who was heavily backed by the Club for Growth but emerged as a leader of the Tea Party caucus, on the night of the final vote to bring the debt ceiling showdown to a close. Where did I meet him? At Nationals Park, where he was taking in a game in AT&T’s corporate skybox.
Obama and the Democrats would have been in big trouble if this muddle had lasted into the 2012 election year. Yes, they would’ve done their best to talk about the need for raising taxes on the rich, but Republicans could have countered, as they did in 2010, with talk of bailed-out bankers and "crony capitalists" like the Solyndra investors. Once again, voters may not have been sure just who was who’s side—at best, they’d throw up their hands and figure that both parties were for the big guy.
But that didn’t happen. Why? Because the Republicans nominated Willard Mitt Romney. In an era of resentment toward unaccountable financial elites, they put forward the ultimate financial elite, a man who sliced and diced companies, sheltered his income offshore, and, above all, was eye-poppingly incapable of discussing his wealth and the economic anxieties of those less fortunate in ways that might put voters at ease. The muddle that had clouded the political debate since Obama’s inauguration parted. On Election Day, when exit pollsters asked voters whom they thought the candidates favored, a plurality, 44 percent, thought Obama favored the middle class, while 53 percent thought Romney favored the rich.