November 14, 2012

THE FUTURE BELONGS TO W:

The Party's Problem (Ramesh Ponnuru, November 14, 2012, National Review)

Clinton won the White House because of the recession of the early 1990s, of course, but also because the end of the Cold War took foreign policy off the table, badly weakening Republicans, and because he systematically addressed Democratic liabilities on welfare, crime, and other values-laden issues. During the presidential debates of 2004, Bush did well on social-issue questions while being defensive on economic issues. In 2006, when Democrats took Congress, they racked up their biggest margin against a Senate incumbent in Pennsylvania, where they ran a candidate who opposed abortion and same-sex marriage.

For the last 50 years, voters have been alarmed by rapid expansions of government (which goes a long way toward explaining the good Republican years of 1966, 1978, 1980, 1994, and 2010) but also by the prospect of major cuts to government (which goes some way toward explaining 1996 and 2012). In other years, they have held vaguely government-skeptical sentiments while approving most proposals for gradual increases in government assistance (for families paying for college, seniors trying to get prescription drugs, and so on).

After the 2006 and 2008 Democratic blowouts, liberals started to view their victory as the new normal in American politics, the result of inexorable demographic forces. After the 2010 Republican victories, some conservatives began to think that was the new normal. Republicans, they thought, had lost in '06 and '08 because of the Iraq War, the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Bush's big spending, and congressional scandals. Given a straight-up choice between conservatism and liberalism, though, the people would choose the former. The 2012 results give credibility to the liberal interpretation and subtract it from the conservative one. It's the 2010 election, not the 2008 one, that is starting to look aberrant.

The Iraq War, the financial crisis, and other issues specific to the late Bush years obviously did play a huge role in the 2006 and 2008 defeats. But it's also true that Republicans weren't even arguing that they had a domestic agenda that would yield any direct benefits for most voters, and that has to have hurt them. Taxes had been the most powerful economic issue for Republicans for a generation, but Republicans misunderstood why. In the '80s and '90s, Republicans ran five presidential campaigns promising to make or keep middle-class taxes lower than they would be under Democrats, and won four of them. In 2008 they made no such promise but did say they would lower the corporate tax rate.

In the exit polls in 2008, 60 percent of voters said that McCain was not "in touch with people like them." McCain lost 79 percent of the voters who said that. To get a majority of the popular vote, he would have had to win 96 percent of the 39 percent of voters who were willing to say he passed the threshold test of understanding their concerns. It's amazing he came as close as he did. (Fifty-seven percent of voters said Obama was in touch, and he had to win only 81 percent of them; he got 86 percent.)

In 2012, the exit pollsters asked a different version of the question: "Who is more in touch with people like you?" Obama beat Romney by ten points, even while losing the "better handle the economy" question by one. Romney, unlike McCain, did offer middle-class voters a tax cut, although it's not clear that this fact made its way through the din of the campaign to register with the voters. His campaign made efforts -- sporadic rather than sustained -- to make the case that his agenda would deliver stronger growth and higher wages. He rarely suggested it would make health care more affordable.

On only one issue did the campaign consistently make the case that Romney would take specific actions that would yield tangible benefits for most Americans: He would allow energy exploration, which would reduce the cost of living for everyone. He devoted time to that theme in his convention speech, which did not touch on affordable health care, higher wages, or the middle class. The energy argument was sufficiently effective that Obama had to steal some of its rhetoric.

The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren't offering anything more -- not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren't demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn't "taking the fight to Obama"; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn't mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.

Romney's infamous "47 percent" gaffe -- by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren't -- made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.

A different Republican presidential nominee might not have made exactly that gaffe, or had a financial-industry background that lent itself to attacks on outsourcing. He would almost certainly have had a similar weakness on economic policy, however, and might have had additional weaknesses too. (Romney at least won independent voters, which it's hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum having done.) To put it differently: The problem isn't so much that Romney was vulnerable to a set of attacks that appear to have discouraged working-class whites from voting; it's that he didn't have anything positive with which to counter those attacks.

The Republican story about how societies prosper -- not just the Romney story -- dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family. A conservative reform of our health-care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals. About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say.

Other than W, who ran and won twice--in addition to carrying a midterm--on personalized retirement accounts, HSAs, prescription drug benefits, and education and housing vouchers.  It's pretty simple: the GOP can be the Third Way Party or the minority party, because the citizenry of the Anglosphere is Third Way..
Posted by at November 14, 2012 5:18 AM
  
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