Salena Zito

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Newspaper accounts of the day described with shock the “enormous crushing crowds” that gathered in cities and towns (including this one) to see William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats’ presidential candidate of 1896, as he made his way to Pittsburgh.

The old master of class warfare did not disappoint: Paper after paper chronicled his rhetoric and the “unheard of” adulation he received from what he termed “the masses.”

The nation had been in a deep depression, with high unemployment and violent labor strikes, in the three years leading to the presidential election between Bryan and Republican William McKinley, Ohio’s former governor.

Despite the social unrest, economic uncertainty and a 90 percent voter turnout in many areas, Bryan and his class-based message failed.

Fast forward to today: President Barack Obama has decided that class warfare will be his winning message for re-election – and Bain Capital will be his code word for that message, implicitly conveying all the meanings of his greater theme.

Bain is the venture-capital firm that Republican Mitt Romney helped to create; it has invested in or acquired hundreds of companies, including Staples, Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, The Sports Authority, Toys "R" Us and The Weather Channel.

In some cases, it loaned seed money to promising entrepreneurs. It also engaged in leveraged buyouts and attempts to turn around struggling companies with new management, re-organizations and cash infusions.

Jobs usually are saved or created by firms such as Bain. However, the leveraged-buyout process often is messy, and people sometimes lose jobs in pursuit of greater profitability.

Traveling much the same path as Bryan here in Ohio and in neighboring Pennsylvania, Vice President Joe Biden has escalated Obama’s class warfare with fevered cries – “They don't get us! They don't get who we are!”

The attacks on Bain also can be seen as part of Team Obama's progressive narrative, according to Baylor University political science professor Curt Nichols. It “stresses distrust in the free market and champions greater governmental intervention in social and economic life.”

“Without care, sometimes this narrative can … promote simplistic ‘us versus them’-type views that stress conflict between the haves and have-nots” – classic class-warfare language, Nichols said.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.