Grand new ideas are GOPâ€™s only hope
In fall 2005, the Republican Party experienced a long, sleepless night. Concerned with Iraq, confounded by Katrina and cast into despair by Harriet Miers, party activists worried about the partyâ€™s future.
During this dusk, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam took to the pages of The Weekly Standard to urge Republicans to embrace the first light of a new era. How? By winning back working-class voters, or â€œSamâ€™s Club Republicans,â€ to use Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlentyâ€™s phrase. In Washington, the article was widely read and well-regarded. The incomparable Michael Barone was so impressed he suggested that â€œnumerous copies get over to the White House.â€
Now, three years later, Douthat and Salam, both writers at The Atlantic, have expanded their article into a book, â€œGrand New Party: How the Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.â€ They define working-class voters as â€œthe non-college-educated voters who make up roughly half of the American electorateâ€ and describe them as the swing voters.
The book is best understood as a rebuttal to Thomas Frankâ€™s best-selling book â€œWhatâ€™s the Matter With Kansas?â€ Frank hypothesized that while the majority of working-class voters care most about economics, they are tricked into voting Republican by faux cultural issues such as abortion, crime and traditional marriage.
Douthat and Salam disagree. They believe working-class voters understand a profound truth that eludes the sophisticated Frank: Cultural and economic issues are related. Ironically, it was a liberal, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who famously articulated the conservative principle that poverty does not create broken families, but broken families create poverty. Douthat and Salam take this a step further and show that working-class voters appreciate traditional values because of the impact on their economic well-being. Marriage may be a trivial issue to Frank, but itâ€™s an economic issue to the working class.
For example, higher divorce rates are a proud legacy of the sexual revolution, but divorce costs money and hurts the working class more than the upper class. Since â€œfamily stability is a prerequisite for financial stability,â€ the authors write, â€œworking-class voters are less likely to benefit from sexual freedom and more likely to suffer from its side effects.â€
The book ends with policy proposals. Having delved into the thicket of working-class issues, history and demographics, Douthat and Salam seek a path forward by offering a vast array of solutions. Some are new. Others are recycled. But all are designed to move the GOP away from libertarianism and toward limited government that helps the working class. Indeed, they argue, â€œthe working class wants, and needs, more from public policy than simply to be left alone.â€ So they propose to help people economically and culturally, to address where they work and how they live.
To lessen economic instability and anxiety, the authors urge tax cuts. Since many working-class voters pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes, the authors suggest leaving income taxes alone and reducing payroll taxes.
To improve health care, they propose allowing families to set aside 15 percent of their income for Health Savings Accounts. If their annual health care costs exceeded this amount, the government would step in. Conversely, if money remained in their account at yearâ€™s end, families would keep it. This would reduce the primary problem with health care today: the market distortion created by people receiving health care through third-party insurance that drives up costs.
To enhance education, they propose sending money not to school districts but to school principals to spend as they see fit.
To strengthen families, they borrow from Ramesh Ponnuruâ€™s revenue-neutral tax reform plan that would dramatically increase the child tax credit.
They also have plans on sprawl, crime, transportation and agriculture. Douthat and Salam seem to offer something for everything.
Unfortunately, many of these proposals seem too grand to be enacted or too small to make a difference.
Reducing payroll taxes, for example, likely will incur the wrath of angry senior groups arguing that it will reduce Medicare and Social Security funds. On the other hand, ideas such as creating more summer programs for kids sound a lot like the famous microagendas created by Dick Morris in the 1990s. Those Clinton proposals (i.e., school uniforms for kids, V-chips for parents) confused governing with campaigning. They garnered headlines, but they made little difference.
In short, many of the Douthat-Salam proposals that could help canâ€™t pass, and many that could pass canâ€™t help.
Still, the authors raise many important questions and offer more than a few interesting solutions. With Barack Obama poised to win the White House, Republicans need to rethink, recast and repackage their ideas to meet working-class votersâ€™ needs.
â€œGrand New Partyâ€ provides a great starting point. John McCain should pick up a copy.
Kasey S. Pipes is the author of â€œIkeâ€™s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equalityâ€ and previously wrote speeches for President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He can be reached at kaseyspipes.com.s96387.gridserver.com.