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Two Decades Too Late
From the February 20, 2012, issue of NR.

Rick Santorum tours PGT Industries in North Venice, Fla., January 23, 2012.

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Henry Olsen

American truckers also face competition from Hispanics already in this country (both legally and illegally). According to the General Services Administration, about 15 percent of truckers were Hispanic males in 2004. That number was projected to rise to nearly 19 percent by 2014; the white-male share of truckers was projected to drop from nearly 66 percent to about 60 percent over the same period.

The result of such competition is that, according to a May 2011 Heartland Monitor poll, white-working-class adults are the demographic most pessimistic about their future. A May 2011 Pew poll showed a similar result. It divided the American population into nine groups based on their political philosophies. In the group dominated by white-working-class independents, who constitute about 11 percent of the electorate, only 50 percent thought that hard work would guarantee success — lower than every other group but one.

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President Obama mimics Senator Santorum when he proposes to bring back manufacturing jobs by changing the tax code to discourage American companies from operating plants overseas. But he’s also proposing to increase public-private job-training partnerships through community colleges “that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now.” One can ask what government’s role in this sort of endeavor ought to be, but at least the president talks about building a future and not just bringing back the past.

Where President Obama really steals a march on Republicans, however, is with his rhetoric about free trade. He taps into the pervasive belief that unfair competition is at the heart of economic decline. Hence his new Trade Enforcement Unit, which will investigate putatively unfair trading practices, and his call for more inspections to “prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders.” These measures may be modest in their scope and largely symbolic, but they send the message that Obama understands the concerns of the working class.

To be successful with working-class voters, conservatives will need to show that they too understand. These voters increasingly feel that they are — to borrow Barack Obama’s recycling of a Bill Clinton formulation — working hard and playing by the rules but not getting ahead. Mitt Romney’s pledge to bring an action against China through the World Trade Organization over alleged currency manipulation responds to this feeling. Conservatives should also spend more time and effort detailing how government officials helped private firms such as Fannie Mae take extreme risks on the taxpayers’ dime, pushing working-class families into loans they didn’t understand and could not afford to repay.

Conservative failure to demonstrate concern for the working class, and to adopt policies that will alleviate its burden, would be a modern-day analogue to liberals’ tone-deafness on crime and patriotism in the 1970s and ’80s — a tone-deafness that helped create the Reagan Democrats in the first place.

-– Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. This article appears in the February 20, 2012, issue of National Review.



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