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Not Ready for Hillary

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By JAY COST
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This time, Republicans would be well advised to cast against type. They should consider a candidate who has not spent much time in Washington, somebody whose parents struggled to reach the middle class, someone who has had to work hard in the last 20 years to retain that status, somebody who is, if not hip, at least relatively young (the younger candidate has won the popular vote in the last six presidential elections). In general, one cannot overstate the power of symbolism in a presidential election. The vast array of issues that confront the electorate is bewildering, and an easy heuristic to deal with the messy questions of policy is: Which candidate has more empathy for people of my social and economic status? The Republicans should find a candidate who seems more empathetic than Hillary Clinton.

Beyond that, Republicans need a “Sister Souljah moment.” That is a reference to the time that presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in the presence of Jesse Jackson, publicly decried obscene lyrics in the music of rapper Sister Souljah. That sent a powerful signal, for the Democratic party of the 1980s had seemed in hock to the identity-politics hucksters of the professional left, Jackson in particular. Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis had given Jackson prominent roles at their conventions, reinforcing the impression that the Democratic party was angrier at America than anything else. Clinton expanded upon his rebuke of Sister Souljah with some tough words for his own party at his 1992 convention:

But, my fellow Democrats, it’s time for us to realize we’ve got some changing to do too. There is not a program in government for every problem, and if we want to use government to help people, we have got to make it work again.

Meanwhile Clinton mentioned “work,” “working,” or “hard work” 29 times in his 1992 address, and in so doing produced a lasting shift in the party’s image. No longer would it be the party of the radicals, the grievance mongers, or those blindly pushing government for its own sake. It would be the party that wields government to help those who are already working hard. That was the essence of the “New Democrat” label. 

Republicans need to do something similar for 2016. Elite quarters of the party will aver that the GOP’s Sister Souljah moment should be about gay marriage or immigration, but they are wrong. Looking at the 2012 exit polls provides a clue as to the party’s real problem. At its core, the electorate in 2012 was conservative in important respects. By a 51-43 margin, voters said that government was doing too much, as opposed to not enough. A plurality also said that Obamacare should be repealed, at least in part. And a plurality narrowly favored Romney over Obama on who could better handle the economy and the deficit. But there was a peculiar twist: When asked which issue “mattered most to people like you,” a plurality identified unemployment as the number one problem, and a decisive majority of those voters favored Obama, despite the fact that jobs were the centerpiece of the Romney campaign. Similarly, voters overwhelmingly said that Obama was “more in touch with people like you.” They also claimed that Obama’s policy favored the middle class over the rich, while Romney’s policies favored the rich over the middle class. Finally, a 55 percent majority of voters said that the “U.S. economic system favors the wealthy.” Obama won more than 70 percent of these voters. 

Since the 1880s, the Republican party has been joined at the hip with business interests in the public mind. When times are good, that is a boon for the GOP, but when times are bad, it is a serious political handicap, as it was in 1992, 2008, and 2012, and as it may be in 2016. Romney hoped to use his background in business to his advantage, but the exit polling indicates that it worked against him. This gave Obama enormous political cover to sidle up to his elite supporters, who enjoyed tremendous payoffs via the stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank. The Clintons will probably do likewise. They will spend money donated by Goldman Sachs executives to run television ads decrying the influence of corporations like Goldman Sachs, all the while assuming that the GOP’s psychological connection with business will mask their blatant hypocrisy. 

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