Ramesh Ponnuru on the GOP and the Politics of Middle-Class Economic Interests

by Reihan Salam

The latest issue of National Review leads with Ramesh Ponnuru’s definitive take on the challenge facing the GOP, which as we’ve been reminded ad infinitum, and as I suppose we should be, has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections:

On only one issue did the campaign consistently make the case that Romney would take specific actions that would yield tangible benefits for most Americans: He would allow energy exploration, which would reduce the cost of living for everyone. He devoted time to that theme in his convention speech, which did not touch on affordable health care, higher wages, or the middle class. The energy argument was sufficiently effective that Obama had to steal some of its rhetoric.

The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren’t offering anything more — not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren’t demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn’t “taking the fight to Obama”; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn’t mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.

Romney’s infamous “47 percent” gaffe — by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren’t — made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.

A different Republican presidential nominee might not have made exactly that gaffe, or had a financial-industry background that lent itself to attacks on outsourcing. He would almost certainly have had a similar weakness on economic policy, however, and might have had additional weaknesses too. (Romney at least won independent voters, which it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum having done.) To put it differently: The problem isn’t so much that Romney was vulnerable to a set of attacks that appear to have discouraged working-class whites from voting; it’s that he didn’t have anything positive with which to counter those attacks.

There is much more to Ramesh’s analysis, including an incisive interpretation of how the post-Reagan geopolitical landscape has shaped the GOP’s fortunes. If you read only one article about the Republican future, this should be it. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.