Grand New Party
As the Republican Party clings to the remaining vestiges of its power, namely a regional base in the Deep South, recent debates have centered on whether it should seek to build a “big tent” or retreat to ideological purity. Should they work with a barrier-breaking and popular president of the opposing party or throw a wrench in his agenda when opportunities arise? Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, in their 2008 book Grand New Party (Anchor Books, paperback and updated version in 2009), prefer an alternative strategy, one that seeks to bring working class workers of every racial background into the party’s fold in order to construct a permanent majority.
Their narrative begins with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Douthat and Salam suggest that FDR’s policies were fundamentally pro-family and placed a premium on self-sufficiency and work. The working class was their primary beneficiary, and in the process, the Democratic Party cemented its hold on this demographic for a generation. It wasn’t until Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society pushed policies that the authors argue offered perverse incentives that impeded family formation and individual initiatives, coupled with social turbulence, that working class voters were driven toward Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, a group he called the “Silent Majority.”
Nixon’s passions lied in the realm of foreign policy, and despite some early efforts to address working class concerns through a negative income tax, their demands were largely ignored, their votes taken for granted. This opened the door for Jimmy Carter’s one-time trial in 1976, but Ronald Reagan brought them back into the Republican fold in 1980 and 1984, and allowed his predecessor George HW Bush to win in 1988 on his coattails. Reagan remains the template by which Republicans measure themselves, and their memories of him focus on ideological, doctrinaire purity.
Douthat and Salam claim this hindsight is fundamentally flawed, for Reagan didn’t seek to disassemble the social safety net, but instead oversaw increases in spending, be they scaled back significantly. It was Reagan who signed legislation creating the Earned Income Tax Credit, a scaled back realization of Nixon’s negative income tax, and whose pro-family agenda resonated with working families struggling to make ends meet.
George HW Bush’s country club Republicanism, try as he did, failed to hold blue collar affection, opening the door for Ross Perot in 1992 to siphon away working class votes and deliver the presidency to Bill Clinton. Bob Dole’s 1996 challenge to his incumbency reverted to the tried and true tenets of fiscal and social conservatism, and his party was sentenced to four more years of a president who brilliantly usurped issues in their sweet spot via his “Third Way” agenda.
The authors consider George W Bush’s presidency, more than anything else, as a lost opportunity. His 2000 campaign premised on “compassionate conservatism” showed promise, but he faced an unanticipated challenge on the left from McCain, rather than the right of center attacks he expected from publisher Steve Forbes. They hold No Child Left Behind, warts and all, as the sole working class entreaty, as tax cuts became the all-encompassing mantra, and 9-11 pushed all domestic issues of the table. His failed Social Security privatization planned signaled premature lame duck status.
Though Douthat and Salam wrote in advance of the 2008 presidential outcome, the new preface to the paperback edition to their book addresses lessons from a year ago. They found McCain a failed candidate who never articulated a coherent domestic agenda and ceded a cake walk to his largely untested opponent. They proceed to offer a vision for the future of the Republican Party moving forward, one that forever stops the working class party pinball by pursuing tax policies that reward family creation and child bearing; market-based health care reforms that provide a conservative answer to the public option but address a genuine middle class anxiety; immigration reform that focuses on border control and naturalization policies sensitive to the needs of the labor market; universal school choice coupled with the decentralization of teaching from pre-K through higher ed; and land use policies that utilize a largely untapped frontier for uses (energy, not agriculture) demanded by urbanites.
As the Republican Party celebrates its first dose of good news in five years in the form of separate gubernatorial triumphs by conservative candidates in states that voted for Obama last fall (New Jersey and Virginia), it also likes its wounds from a bloody battle for an open House seat in Upstate New York, where a Democrat won for the first time since the Grant Administration. Governors-elect Bob McDonnell in Virginia, and Chris Christie in New Jersey, while flaunting solid conservative credentials, both campaigned on pocketbook issues, leaving the politics of symbolism to the talk radio punditry. In New York, on the other hand, a moderate Republican candidate was forced from the race in lue of a challenger from the Conservative Party who would go on to lose to the Democrat by a plurality.
I would suggest that these separate outcomes confirm the central hypothesis of Douthat and Salam. Moreover, I urge caution when reading the tea leaves for 2010 and beyond. Republican campaigns modeled off of McDonnell and Christie can sell even in blue states and swing districts, yet rock-ribbed interventions like those exercised by Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and their likes in New York spell a generation of Democratic dominance. Fiscal restraint, job creation, and balanced budgets register with voters in an era dominated by their antithesis, and those who seek to win on the basis of “God, gays, and guns” are nothing more than a quick path to a long walk in the woods.
Join the Freedom Project and the Chicago Young Republicans next Thursday for a public program featuring Reihan Salam and former White House speech writing Matt Latimer. I will review Latimer’s book, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor, in advance of next week’s event.