Thursday 21 March 2013

A Populist Republican Economic Agenda

There is much in the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” that has merit. It is about time that the Republicans prioritized winning a larger share of non-white voters. One good thing about the 2012 election is that it killed off the illusion that Republicans can keep winning by just reassembling the 1980s Reagan demographic coalition. Unfortunately, the RNC report introduces another illusion to Republican politics. The problem starts on page six where the report summarizes the public’s negative feelings toward the Republican party.

Asked to describe Republicans, they said that the party is “scary,” “narrow minded,” and “out of touch” and that we were a party of “stuffy old men.” This is consistent with the findings of other post-election surveys.

Scary? Narrow minded? Out of touch? Does anyone notice what is missing? Oh, yeah, too pro-rich. A post-election poll found that 60 percent of Americans found the Republicans to be too pro-rich. That tracks with the 53 percent in the 2012 exit poll who responded that Mitt Romney’s policies would generally favor the wealthy. The Republicans cannot succeed as the party of the middle and aspiring working-classes if only 34 percent of voters think Republican policies will favor the middle class. The authors of the RNC report are right to highlight the perception of the Republicans as the party of white identity politics, but they ignore the problem of the Republican economic agenda.

This produces some comical results. The report forswears making policy recommendations, but makes an exception for comprehensive immigration reform. The report states “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” This emphasis on amnesty as the key to winning votes outside of the “core” Republican constituency is an error. The error is perfectly distilled where the document favorably quotes a participant in the RNC’s discussion with Hispanic groups:

The key problem is that the Republican party’s message offends too many people unnecessarily. We win the economic message, which is the most important to voters, but we then lose them when we discuss other issues.

This is nonsense. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 26 percent of Hispanics opposed Obamacare while 48 percent supported it. Incidentally, Romney received 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in November. Basically, only that small minority of Hispanics who opposed Obamacare voted for Romney. If the Republicans are not winning the debate on Obamacare, then they are not winning the “economic message.” Comprehensive immigration reform can’t fix that.

What is most damning is that Republican problems among Hispanics are almost perfectly mirrored by their problems among Asian Americans. Republicans got 26 percent of the vote among Asian Americans.  That is bad enough, but it is only when you look at Asian-American polling numbers regarding Obamacare that the depth of the Republican problem becomes clear.

The Asian-American and Latino populations are substantially different. Asian Americans have a higher median income than either Hispanics or whites. Seventy percent of Asian Americans are covered by either employer-provided or individual health insurance, compared to 43 percent of Hispanics (and 75 percent of whites.)  Health insurance coverage for Asian Americans very closely resembles coverage for whites. The result? Asian Americans support Obamacare by wider margins than Hispanics

This is what losing the economic message looks like. You could make some sort of bank shot argument that Asian Americans are hostile to Republicans because Republicans don’t seem willing to support comprehensive immigration reform and so only listen to Democrats in protest. The problem is that (according to the same survey) immigration policy is a very low priority among Asian Americans. The Republicans aren’t losing among non-whites because of opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. They are losing because they are losing the policy argument. You would never know that from reading the RNC report.

The Republican National Committee is in a cul-de-sac. They see that support for the Republican party is becoming isolated to constituencies that are in relative demographic decline. What the RNC does not see (or chooses not to see) is that the party’s weakness is largely the result of the perception of the party as a vehicle for the self-interest of the wealthy. The result is that the only substantive policy recommendation to expand the party is coincidentally one that is also favored by employer interests. Ramesh Ponnuru was right when he described the RNC report as the Republican elites’ version of reform. To put it another way, the RNC thinks Romney’s problem was his rhetoric on amnesty in the primaries and not his tax plan that sharply cut taxes on high earners while offering few if any direct benefits to the middle-class.

Republicans need an alternative to the elite Republican vision that acts as if outreach means amnesty plus updating the party’s technical apparatus plus nothing in particular. Republicans need affirmative policies that can win broad popular support. There is a sense in which the authors of the RNC report are right. The Republican policy message is only resonating with people who have been socialized into the center-right narrative of the 1970s and 1980s. If you haven’t been raised to fear “socialized medicine,” the Republican message on Obamacare is falling flat. At least the Democrats are trying to do something about the uninsured, rising health care premiums, and those with pre-existing conditions.

I happen to think Obamacare’s policies are wrong, but for a growing fraction of the population, a something (even a government-run health care something) beats nothing. If you haven’t been socialized into the narrative that the Reagan tax cuts saved the economy, then Romney’s across-the-board income tax cut just looked like a cut primarily directed at high earners who were already making out okay from the economy and whose marginal tax rates were already low by the standards of recent history. The Republicans look indifferent to everyday concerns.

Republicans should respond to their defeat with a more populist economic agenda. The Republicans have already had the Tea Party movement. This was an authentic center-right populism, but its agenda was primarily oppositional. Membership in the Tea Party was centered around people who already consumed right-leaning media. There is nothing wrong with that. People who consume right-leaning media will be at the core of any successful right-leaning movement. They just can’t be the only component of that movement and that movement needs a positive policy agenda.

A broad Republican populism must include direct benefits for middle- and working-class families. If Republicans want to be the party of work and family, then they need a tax policy that increases the returns to work for parents who are trying to raise their children. A broad Republican populism must include reasonable answers to people’s anxieties about health insurance. Republicans need affirmative policies that can plausibly promise to slow the growth of health care premiums. Republicans need policies that will offer people a chance to maintain health insurance if the only work they can find doesn’t offer benefits. A Republican populism would offer policies to help those with pre-existing conditions that are less costly than Obama’s and do less to disrupt the health insurance of everyone else.

A populist Republican economic agenda would not just be designed to win over non-whites. As Henry Olsen pointed out, the Romney campaign struggled with some populations of blue-collar whites because those whites thought Republicans didn’t believe in the dignity of their labor and that the Republican deal was “give more power to management and maybe we’ll keep your factory open.” Facing such an economically elitist Republican party, many coal county working-class whites stayed home even though they felt that Obama was hostile to the industry that employed them. 

A populist Republican economic policy would be able to unite those working-class whites with a growing share of working- and middle-class non-whites and the existing Republican base. But a condition of forming this broad Republican coalition is recognizing that the existing Republican economic message is broken, and that it cannot be fixed by the amnesty favored by the Republican establishment (though I would favor a limited amnesty), much less by the kind of enormous high-earner tax cut favored by libertarians like Rand Paul with his flat tax proposal.

This is what winning the economic argument looks like. If you want to win over people who have no personal or family connection to the Republican party or organized center-right politics, you need policies that will directly benefit them economically. It isn’t enough to trot out amnesty and explain how everyone’s life will get so much better once we cut marginal tax rates on the job creators who “built that.”

No comments:

Post a Comment