Hold on: Wasn't there more to that 'Reagan Democrats' thing than money?

If you are into politics in the Culture War era, then you may be familiar with the Thomas Frank bestseller called "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America."

It's kind of dangerous to summarize a book in a few words, but here is what I took away from it: For the past decade or two, elite Republicans have been able to use social and moral issues to confuse middle class and working class Americans, convincing them that the GOP understands their "values." Once you understand this nasty trick, you know why ordinary Americans have been going to the polls and voting against their own economic interests. Or something like that.

Really old news consumers will remember that, once upon a time, these voters in middle America were called "Reagan Democrats," which was another way of saying blue-collar and Catholic Democrats who were turned off by some post-1960s elements of Democratic Party life. The crucial point for this post: Social issues and religion played a major role in this political drama.

This brings me to a very interesting, but very strange, political story that ran in The New York Times the other day under this headline: "G.O.P. Hopefuls Now Aiming to Woo the Middle Class." Here is the top of the story. See if you can spot The Big Idea:

WASHINGTON -- The last three men to win the Republican nomination have been the prosperous son of a president (George W. Bush), a senator who could not recall how many homes his family owned (John McCain of Arizona; it was seven) and a private equity executive worth an estimated $200 million (Mitt Romney).

The candidates hoping to be the party’s nominee in 2016 are trying to create a very different set of associations. On Sunday, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, joined the presidential field.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida praises his parents, a bartender and a Kmart stock clerk, as he urges audiences not to forget “the workers in our hotel kitchens, the landscaping crews in our neighborhoods, the late-night janitorial staff that clean our offices.”

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a preacher’s son, posts on Twitter about his ham-and-cheese sandwiches and boasts of his coupon-clipping frugality. His $1 Kohl’s sweater has become a campaign celebrity in its own right.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky laments the existence of “two Americas,” borrowing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase to describe economically and racially troubled communities like Ferguson, Mo., and Detroit.

Now, there are hints in there -- like that "preacher's son" reference -- that suggest that this story is interested in culture as well as money. However, those hints lead nowhere. In fact, this may be one of the most faith-issue-free pieces of journalism I have seen in years about strategic moves inside the GOP.

Now, I don't doubt that it is crucial for Republicans to put some distance between themselves and the lords of country-club America. And obviously, GOP candidates need to dominate the red zip codes in flyover country if they want to capture the White House, once again.

But are economic issues really all that matters to the middle class? What happened to the "What's the Matter With Kansas" thesis all of a sudden? And while we are talking about that, what about the evidence that Democrats -- and Libertarian Republicans, to a lesser degree -- are now the darlings of the technology billionaires and other younger members of our culture's economic ruling class?

But in this Times report, here is the state of things:

Harmed by the perception that they favor the wealthy at the expense of middle-of-the-road Americans, the party’s contenders are each trying their hardest to get across what the elder George Bush once inelegantly told recession-battered voters in 1992: “Message: I care.”
Their ability to do so — less bluntly, more sincerely — could prove decisive in an election year when power, privilege and family connections will loom large for both parties.
Questions of understanding and compassion cost Republicans in the last election. Mr. Romney, who memorably dismissed the “47 percent” of Americans as freeloaders, lost to President Obama by 63 percentage points among voters who cast their ballots for the candidate who “cares about people like me,” according to exit polls.

Now, let's me clear. I am not saying that this story is off-base with its focus on economic issues. I am, however, saying that there is a religion ghost in this story. Is it really possible to talk about GOP appeal to the middle class, the old "Reagan Democrats" niche, without including SOME content about moral, religious and cultural issues, the whole "values voter" thing? Can you say "pew gap"?

I hear you: Perhaps there is evidence that the power of cultural issues is fading. We will see, as the campaign unfolds. But even if that is true, that sea change needs to be covered in this kind of news story. Right?

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