The media's post-election analysis these past couple weeks has been a gigantic, gelatinous, oozing blob of mind-bending illogic.
We've been told the Republican Party must recalibrate all its positions following an election in which very little changed. We've been lectured on abortion after exit polls showed voters were motivated by the economy. We've watched various big-government "conservatives" crawl out from under rocks murmuring the usual incantations against the Tea Party. And we've endured a video of Meghan McCain saying she "hates" Karl Rove being praised as some sort of avant garde one-woman stage show.
As a friend of mine exclaimed a few days ago, "We lost one election!" It was a stinging loss at a crucial time, to be sure. But it hardly portends the extinction of conservatism.
That being said, there's one voice in the cacophony that's worth a listen. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said this on Meet the Press this past Sunday:
[W]e believe in small government, but we also believe in the individual. There are too many Republicans here in Washington, DC, and they are actually defending big business. They are defending the rich. I didn't become a Republican to defend the rich. And-- and what we need to understand is that big business loves big government, because they get all the goodies from big government. They get more-- they get less competition. The more that government grows, the more that big business actually benefits from the tax code and from the regulations...
He's right and it's a problem for both conservatism and the GOP's electoral strategy.
I did a little volunteer phone calling for a Republican senatorial campaign a couple years ago. About halfway through I got a rare pickup (caller ID means the vast majority of these go to voicemail) and made my case for our candidate. The woman listened thoughtfully. "Well," she said when I was finished. "I like the Republicans. But the economy is so bad this year, I don't think I trust them."
Regardless of reality, Republicans are reflexively associated with Wall Street. A Gallup poll taken during election season found 75% of Americans thought Romney would be better for upper-income Americans. Meanwhile 53% thought Obama would be better for the middle-class and 66% saw the poor faring better under Obama.
It's nonsense, of course. President Obama's policies have left the poor and middle class in economic stagnation. And as Rep. Labrador pointed out, corporations are benefiting from less competition and sitting on unspent capital. But public perception is upside-down. The GOP is seen as the party of the rich.
Part of this comes from the right's love of low taxes, which inevitably get labeled "tax cuts for the rich." Republicans shouldn't compromise on this. Raising taxes on the wealthy stymies growth and is bad policy.
But most of the GOP's reputation is undeserved and that's where the argument needs to be made. The president's policies are freezing the economy's small business engine. Employment at start-up companies is at a record low. Only 3.3% of unemployed Americans are starting new businesses. The cost of bringing on a new employee often exceeds the benefit. Obamacare alone is expected to suck 80 million man hours out of the economy.
Corporations have plenty of money to comply. Small businesses don't.
Many commentators are demanding that the GOP transform into a middle-class party. But right now the GOP is the middle-class party. It just needs to take the ammunition and start firing. Stop making tax cuts the sole reason for entrepreneurs to vote Republican. Explain point-for-point why small businesses are languishing. Make Obamacare and Dodd-Frank centerpiece issues rather than peripheral ones. Cast the Democratic Party as corporate America's rightful home.
And nominate the right candidate. Mitt Romney magnified the perception problem last election. Many Republicans bet that a steady-as-she-goes veteran of the business world would win in an era of mismanaged government. Instead, the Obama campaign successfully painted Romney as a heartless corporate raider, helped along by his gaffes and record of flip-flopping.
Actual policy details didn't matter. Neither did Romney's overtures to small business. I like the Republicans. But the economy is so bad this year, I don't think I trust them. With Romney topping the ticket, the GOP was perceived as corporate America. Game over.
Contrast that with the political alignment in 2010. Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly thought government policies, engineered by Democrats, were benefitting the wealthy and corporations. Republicans were represented by the middle-class Tea Party. Game, set, match.
A schoolyard bully economy where big government and big business team up and beat up the little guy isn't conservative at all. In 2014, Republicans should recast themselves as the middle-class party of small business. In 2016, they should nominate a real outsider who will make the case.