Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream
By Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam
(Doubleday, 256 pages, $23.95)
In 1970, Pat Buchanan wrote President Richard M. Nixon a memo about The Real Majority, a book by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg. Scammon and Wattenberg intended to guide the Democrats to victory by emphasizing economics over social issues, but Buchanan recognized the obvious Republican counterstrategy of appealing to the working class’s patriotism and moral traditionalism. Nixon was convinced: “We should aim our strategy primarily at disaffected Democrats, at blue-collar workers, and at working-class ethnics. We should set out to capture the vote of the 47-year-old Dayton housewife.”
The 47-year-old Dayton housewife is now 85 and spending her retired machinist husband’s pension in Florida, but as a voter she and her children remain very much in demand. Their departure from the Democratic Party collapsed the New Deal coalition, while their frequent return trips prevented the Nixon-Reagan coalition from becoming an enduring Republican majority. Lately, they have been keeping superdelegates and Barack Obama’s campaign strategists up late at night. These white working-class voters still prefer the Democrats on economics, Republicans on God and country. In Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, both editors at the Atlantic Monthly and popular bloggers, argue that such voters hold the keys to a Republican revival — if the GOP can promote their economic interests as well as their cultural values.
Grand New Party has brought its authors a great deal of attention from journalists interested in the state of conservatism, and deservedly so. Of all the recently published treatises on reinventing the right, theirs is the most convincing in its political analysis, detailed in its policy recommendations, and specific about the voting blocs Republicans should court. Yet the book is not immune to the flaws endemic in this genre. The authors engage in a form of political triage, deciding which aspects of conservatism can be saved and which must be left to expire. Limited government is always beyond help.
Which is perhaps not terribly surprising, as the Dayton housewife is not known for her anti-statist zeal. Who are these people who have, according to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, transformed the GOP from the “party of the country club” to the “party of Sam’s Club”? In Douthat and Salam’s telling, they are the working, non-college educated voters who make up nearly half of the American electorate. They were Nixon’s Silent Majority, Ronald Reagan’s Reagan Democrats, Newt Gingrich’s angry white males, and crucial red-state constituents under George W. Bush, only to swing back to the Democrats with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the 2006 midterm elections.
This is not your grandfather’s working class, however, which makes the Sam’s Club voters unreliable Democrats too. Douthat and Salam describe them as “far more likely to be working in education or health care, office administration or business services than on a farm or an assembly line.” They are also more likely to “belong to a family that makes $60,000 a year rather than $30,000” and to enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents’ generation, making them difficult to win over with Thomas Frank pamphlets and Hillary Clinton’s Norma Rae impressions.
Globalization and years of sustained economic growth have made these families materially better off, but at the price of heightened risk. Prosperity hasn’t translated into security, which has hurt Republicans because they have better answers for generating the former than the latter. Democrats, on the other hand, have been hurt by their tendency to view social conservatism as a kind of false consciousness that leads working-class voters to “cling to guns and religion” or be snookered by GOP bromides about “God, gays, and guns.” But for the Sam’s Club voter, traditional values are a matter of substance, not symbolism: safe neighborhoods and strong families provide benefits as tangible as low Wal-Mart prices.
The party that squares this circle — mixing social conservatism with protections from the vicissitudes of the free markets economic conservatives champion, devising policies that are pro-growth and pro-stability — owns the future. Unfortunately, once the actual policymaking commences it becomes clear that this is easier said than done. Douthat and Salam suggest a mix of cautiously incremental market-based reforms and newly competent big-government conservatism as a solution to these problems, with mixed results.
ONE OF THEIR BETTER IDEAS is to change the way Republicans cut taxes. The Reagan across-the-board tax cuts were designed to deal with specific problems — stagflation, marginal rates in the prohibitive range of the Laffer curve, middle-class bracket creep — that have largely been solved. Payroll taxes now take a bigger bite of many families’ paychecks than the dreaded income tax. Moreover, growth isn’t the only thing conservatives should want to promote. What the journalist Steve Sailer calls “affordable family formation” should be a priority too.
To that end, Douthat and Salam would quintuple the child tax credit, index it to wages, and apply it to payroll taxes as well as income taxes. They would do so in the context of a larger tax reform that would also simplify the Internal Revenue Code and reduce taxes on investment. Orthodox supply-siders are likely to object that a bigger child tax credit won’t lower marginal tax rates. Other conservatives will complain about using the tax code for social engineering.
But the Douthat-Salam proposal, borrowed from economist Robert Stein and National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru, would alleviate an implicit tax against childrearing and increase the popularity of politicians likely to favor purer supply-side policies. If Republicans don’t shore up their base of married parents with children, at least as promising a constituency as the investor class supply-siders want to cultivate, liberals will have an opportunity for far less benign social engineering.
Douthat and Salam suggest reducing the payroll taxes of low- and middle-income families and making up the lost revenue by means-testing Social Security benefits for the rich. This will turn tax debates about the “richest 1 percent” upside down and expand the constituency for a tax-cutting party. It would also offer tax relief to people even New York Times editorial writers would agree are deserving. The authors describe this idea as “an ideal way for conservatives to once again make tax cuts appealing in Middle America” and also “provide a populist sweetener” to renewed entitlement reform.
If some conservatives might quibble with the above proposals, Grand New Party contains several more that will send them into open revolt. Drawing on the work of Nobel laureate economist Edmund Phelps, Douthat and Salam call for a program of wage subsidies for the working poor that could cost up to $85 billion a year. While they wisely steer clear of the Republican-sponsored universal health coverage schemes that bedevil California and Massachusetts, the authors endorse Brad DeLong’s plan to require “all individuals and families to set aside 15 percent of income in a Health Savings Account.” Maybe these are terrific ideas, but wouldn’t a conservative want to read more than a few paragraphs about them before accepting such large expansions of government?
The trouble with dismissing limited government as unpopular or politically impractical is that it becomes easy to forget why conservatives championed the idea in the first place. It wasn’t out of cheapness, cruelty, or obsession with some abstract anti-government ideology. It is extremely difficult — much more difficult than the authors seem to imagine — to instill self-reliance through the welfare state, promote economic dynamism while minimizing risk, and, most importantly, carve out a space for family and community life while giving decision-making power and vast amounts of money to centralized government bureaucracies. In short, big-government conservatism usually fails not because Brownie didn’t do a heck of a job but because big government is poorly suited for conserving much beyond its own power.
Grand New Party is sure to start debates. Readers can embrace or discard the various bits of policy wonkery; they can even question how decisive white working-class voters will be in the next partisan realignment. But the single biggest failing of this ambitious, often impressive book is the authors’ casual assumption that it will be easy to use liberal means for conservative ends.
Their first chapter should tell them otherwise: the New Deal was designed to promote the traditional family, but years later its programs undermined the black family in ways that cried out for welfare reform and imposed the tax on childrearing the authors now want to relieve. Douthat and Salam are right about the need to update the conservative agenda. But without the “internal composure that comes of knowing there are rational limits to politics,” as William F. Buckley Jr. put it, our Dayton housewife will forever be disappointed. And so will conservatives.
This review appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.