Politics & Policy

On the Middle Class, Schumer Is Right

Senator Chuck Schumer (Win McNamee/Getty)
Conservatives need to do what Democrats have not: address wage stagnation.

Almost exactly one year ago, I and my colleagues at the American Principles Project released an election autopsy on the lessons of 2012. Countering the conventional wisdom that conservative social issues were distracting voters from the GOP’s winning economic message, we argued that social issues were neither hurting Republicans nor electing Democrats, and that the key problem was that both parties were failing to address the core concern of voters: declining standards of living brought on by prolonged wage stagnation combined with moderate inflation in the items that consume the bulk of middle-class families’ budgets.

Someone finally got the message. Who would have thought it would be New York’s Democratic senator Chuck Schumer?

“After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle-class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus, but unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them,” Schumer said in a speech before the National Press Club. “We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem: health-care reform.”

Democrats, energized by their power to pressure Republicans to back away from abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty, drew the wrong lesson and tried to win reelection with a “war on woman” meme fundamentally disconnected from women’s core concerns.

In a striking Washington Post column on November 26, political scientists John McTague and Melissa Deckman make clear that being pro-abortion is not the ticket to Democratic victory. “It wasn’t clear even in 2012 that this rhetoric worked,” they write, citing a recent study by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck “that found no link between news coverage on contraception and abortion and women’s attitudes about either Obama or Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign, and little evidence that attitudes about abortion were central to moving women voters to Obama.”

And today “attitudes about the size and scope of government — not abortion — are what drive the gender gap,” McTague and Deckman conclude. “Women are more likely than men to believe that the federal government should provide assistance to the poor, in part because women are disproportionately likely to be recipients of such government aid.”

Support for requiring birth control in insurance is not about our sexual culture wars, it is about women being far more open to government support than men are, because single mothers require more support. The Post essay continues:

As our research shows, attitudes about abortion and attitudes about government-mandated insurance coverage for birth control are not strongly related. Americans view abortion largely as an issue of personal morality, akin to other “culture war” issues, such as gay rights and marijuana. By contrast, insurance coverage for birth control taps into attitudes about economic opportunity and the proper size and scope of government.

Meanwhile there is good evidence that social issues can be helpful in attracting the votes of Hispanics, who are the least libertarian of voters. One of the little-noticed factoids of the 2014 elections is that in one of the few GOP campaigns to emphasize opposition to abortion and gay marriage, Sam Brownback won the Hispanic vote in Kansas, 47 percent to 46 percent. (Brownback is relatively pro-immigration as well.)

The Democrats misused their 2008 mandate to address the concerns of their ideological base: universal health care, gay rights, and whacking nuns with birth-control mandates, all while ignoring the twin core concerns of Hispanics: immigration reform and the stagnant working-class economy..

My prediction for 2016: Some Democrat is going to run for president on a full-throated Schumer-esque progressive middle-class agenda.

Are Republicans ready?

— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.

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