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Here's My Plan By: Matthew Continetti
The Weekly Standard | Monday, July 07, 2008

Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream
By Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam
Doubleday, 256 pp., $23.95

A few months back, Barack Obama explained why he had not won more support from voters in Appalachia.

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.

The onetime lecturer in law was addressing a phenomenon that has puzzled liberals for years: Since it is self-evident to them that liberal economic policies benefit working-class voters (defined, for our purposes, as voters without college degrees), why does the working class so often support conservatives? The liberal answer, with which Obama appears to agree, is that the working-class voter is either fooled or scared--never persuaded--into voting on cultural, not economic, grounds.

The conservative authors of Grand New Party largely agree with this analysis. The difference is that Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue it is entirely rational for working-class voters to cast ballots on social and cultural concerns. That's because issues "from abortion and marriage law to the death penalty and immigration" are "at the root of working-class insecurity." They reverse the left's chain of causation. Whereas the left says social pathologies result from economic immiseration, Douthat and Salam say that economic anxiety increases in direct proportion to social instability.

(Full disclosure: The article that served as the basis of Grand New Party first appeared in these pages--"The Party of Sam's Club," November 14, 2005--and the authors are my friends.)

It's hard to disagree with them. The social disruptions of the last 40 years--rising levels of divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, and crime--have hit voters without college degrees the hardest. Those disruptions prevent the formation of stable families. And without stable families, people lack both a refuge from and a mechanism by which to cope with larger structural changes in the global economy.

No family, less stability, less of a chance to improve one's condition.

This is bad for the working class, for America, and for the GOP. Republicans all too often come into power backed by working-class majorities, only to alienate those majorities and get tossed out of office. Douthat and Salam want to break the cycle. They think a conservative politics offers the best chance for a strong and prosperous America, and write that it is therefore necessary for conservatives to reform the "welfare state so that it serves the interests of the working class, rather than the affluent."

In so doing, the Republican party may forge a "conservative class consciousness among working-class voters." And this, in turn, would create a "unity of political allegiance and socioeconomic identity that, in its liberal form, made the Roosevelt coalition so potent and enduring." Voilà--there's your lasting Republican majority. Clearly the left has not cornered the market on audacity. Grand New Party is an unusual book: part history, part political analysis, part policy brief. It challenges the widely held idea on the right that the GOP isn't small-government enough. And at a time when the word "neocon" is a slur, Douthat and Salam argue that the GOP is most successful when it governs according to the principles of "applied neoconservatism." By this they mean "a conservatism that promised to fix the welfare state, rather than abolish it; to reform the Great Society, but leave the New Deal more or less intact."

How to do this? The authors have plenty of ideas. Some are plausible, others are implausible, and still others are a mixture of both. For example, Douthat and Salam back a dramatic expansion of the child-tax credit--a sensible idea that could conceivably become law. But then they muse that, in order to stigmatize illegitimacy, the credit ideally would be "targeted to married couples (and extended to widows and widowers, and possibly divorcees) and withheld from single and cohabiting parents." Not gonna happen.

Large portions of the book are written in the language of subsidies and tax credits and public "investments." The libertarians among us are likely to blanch, even pass out. To increase the time mothers are able to spend raising children, Douthat and Salam propose "subsidies to parents who provide child care in the home and pension credits that reflect the economic value of years spent in household labor." To reward work, they write that a "program of wage subsidies" is a "tool that's worth considering."

All of these ideas will cost money; it's unclear how much. The authors provide neither a cost estimate nor a means to pay for the new expenditures. It's simply assumed that the money will be there, or that revenues will rise to cover the cost of the new programs. And while Douthat and Salam are probably more open than other conservatives to increasing revenue by raising taxes, they avoid the question of which taxes ought to be raised, and by how much.

This raises a larger criticism, which is that the authors neglect economic growth. They seem more concerned with how to spend the money that a free economy generates. But without growth there is no revenue for wage subsidies. Without growth, all classes stagnate. As Irving Kristol has written, "It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously, that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability." Douthat and Salam often appear to assume that government programs are the only way to help the working class. Not so. Growth helps, too. Grand New Party is about domestic policy. But it is also worth considering the role national security has played in winning working-class support for the GOP. Reaganism combined a stirring belief in American exceptionalism with a commitment to American military strength. This marriage of American ideals and American power has been key to every successful Republican campaign in the last quarter-century, and nowhere is this more clear than in presidential contests. Who is the only Democrat to have won the presidency since Jimmy Carter, the only one to win reelection since Franklin Roosevelt? Bill Clinton. When did he hold office? During a time when America was widely perceived to be at peace.

The national security issue cuts both ways. Douthat and Salam barely mention what they call President Bush's "failure in Iraq." This gives short shrift to the most important issue of our time. The war on terror, of which Iraq is a part, has helped and hurt Bush among voters without college degrees. Congressional Republicans won the working-class vote in 2004 when the war in Iraq was increasingly unpopular but also seen as winnable. By 2006 Iraq was in chaos, the war was even more unpopular, and voters began to think the effort was a lost cause. Republican congressional candidates won only 43 percent of the working-class vote. The Democrats swept back into power with a narrow congressional majority. The Iraq war, not the absence of a "world-class telecommuting infrastructure," drove the working-class vote into the Democrats' eager embrace.

How long will that embrace last? One troubling sign for Republicans is Obama's recent hiring of Jason Furman as policy adviser. Furman is a centrist economist whom Douthat and Salam cite repeatedly. He's just the sort of guy who could adopt the message of Grand New Party and use it to further Democratic ends. Meanwhile, Obama seems open to the populist messages of Democrats like James Webb of Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. He could mix populist rhetoric and center-left economic policy into a potent brew. It may be awhile before the working class gets its fill.

But not necessarily, for two reasons. First, Obama's ideological commitments to familial diversity, feminism, affirmative action, Roe v. Wade, and all the other shibboleths of social liberalism will inevitably spur a reaction among working-class voters. It's just a question of whether that happens before or after he becomes president.

Second, Iraq in 2008 is nothing like Iraq in 2006. The war is not a "failure." Voters are beginning to realize this. They may have reached a consensus that the war should not have been fought, but they are ambivalent about how to go forward. They trust John McCain's national security judgment. They are uncertain that a 46-year-old lawyer who seemingly came out of nowhere four years ago is a plausible commander in chief. McCain's job is to convince them that he is not.

This may be enough to win the working-class back from the Democrats in 2008. Those Republicans who want to keep them would do well to read this learned, judicious, and enjoyable book.

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