The Magazine

The Party of Sam's Club

Isn't it time the Republicans did something for their voters?

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By REIHAN SALAM and ROSS DOUTHAT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Since the election, the GOP's position has steadily worsened. Even before this fall's disasters, the party was slipping in the polls. The hope that compassionate conservatism might help Republicans make permanent inroads among blacks and Hispanics has evaporated--Katrina's racially charged aftermath probably delivered the coup de grâce to Bush's efforts to woo African Americans--and now the party is struggling to hold on to its white working class loyalists. Last summer, Bush's approval rating among non-Hispanic whites stood at 61 percent. Over the past year, it's plummeted to 44 percent. And that number understates the party's woes. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in mid-October, 64 percent of non-Hispanic whites want the next president to pursue policies very different from those pursued by President Bush.

Then there are female voters--many of them the indispensable "social" and "pro-government" (think "war on terror") conservatives, without whom the current GOP majority wouldn't exist. Between 2000 and 2004, Bush wooed them successfully: His margin of victory among white working class women climbed from 7 percent to 18 percent; among married white working class women, it rose from 15 percent to 31 percent. But Bush's electoral success with this group has not translated into lasting gains for the GOP; white working class women now favor congressional Democrats by wide margins. The "achievements" of the Republican Congress--massive highway spending that goes straight to well-connected contractors and an energy bill that does nothing to address gasoline prices at the pump--are unlikely to bring them back.

Given this political landscape, Republicans face three obvious options. The first is to continue to muddle along with the domestic policy that produced the multi-trillion-dollar Medicaid drug benefit, three years of bloated appropriations bills, and the failed push for private retirement accounts, and hope that social issues and national security concerns are enough to keep the party's majority afloat. A second option is to attempt a return to a purer, more fiscally austere faith, even if it means ceding political power, and wait for the looming entitlement crisis to convince Americans of the wisdom of repealing the New Deal.

The third possibility--and the best, both for the party and the country as a whole--would be to take the "big-government conservatism" vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability. This wouldn't mean an abandonment of small-government objectives, but it would mean recognizing that these objectives--individual initiative, social mobility, economic freedom--seem to be slipping away from many less-well-off Americans, and that serving the interests of these voters means talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can't have an "ownership society" in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own. It would mean matching the culture war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family--the institution best capable of providing cultural stability and economic security--at the heart of the GOP agenda.

The proposals that follow are neither perfect nor exhaustive, but they offer a starting place for a discussion that the Republican party desperately needs to have. The economic anxieties of middle and working-class voters are likely to be the domestic political issue of the coming years, and a party, or at the very least a 2008 presidential candidate, in search of an agenda needs to start thinking seriously about how to address them.

The Future of the Family

A "pro-family" economic agenda would begin with the recognition of a frequent left-wing talking point--that over the past few decades, returns to capital have escalated while returns to labor have declined, and that the result has been increasing economic insecurity for members of the working and middle classes. One can exaggerate the impact of globalization on American workers, and it remains clear that it's largely positive. Nevertheless, many of the benefits of global trade derive from firing unproductive workers in one's own country (or inducing them to work harder for less pay) and replacing them with more efficient workers elsewhere. The negative impact is real, and it affects the population in a very uneven way, with those at the bottom squeezed hardest.