This nominating season is showing us that the old conservative formulas for winning elections aren’t working any more — even within the Republican party. If we want to bring conservative change to the country, we are going to have to adapt.
Exactly what lies behind Donald Trump’s plurality of the Republican primary vote has been hotly debated. But it is clear that his success is partly due to the fact that many Americans are disaffected from their elected officials. Even many Americans who do not identify as liberals do not feel that the conservative agenda of the last four decades has much to offer them. Trump has, after all, been able to thrive while disagreeing with or ignoring much of that agenda.
Some conservatives have been warning for years that our agenda is too narrowly focused, and out of touch with most voters’ current concerns: that we spend much more time thinking about how to get the top tax rate down than about how to raise middle-class wages. (Or that we act, contrary to both voter sentiment and common sense, as though these two goals are the same.) We look at the economy too often through the eyes of business owners, and not often enough through the eyes of their employees.
The RAND Corporation recently found that the strongest indicator of Trump support is believing that “people like me don’t have any say in what the government does.” It’s easy for conservatives to blame liberals for that state of affairs. But we have not always kept these frustrated voters in mind ourselves.
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In a short book released by the Conservative Reform Network two years ago — Room to Grow — several conservatives explained this disconnect and offered a few ideas to fix it. Pete Wehner described the anxieties of the middle class, whose members increasingly fear that the American dream is slipping through their grasp, and believe by a wide margin that Democrats favor their interests more than Republicans. Yuval Levin warned conservatives against merely negotiating over the price tag of the Left’s platform. Instead, he wrote, they should present an agenda “rooted not just in fiscal concerns but in a political, moral, and social vision much better aligned with the realities of American life and the character of Americans’ aspirations.”
#share#In the chapters that followed, other authors suggested conservative reforms to help those trapped in unemployment and dependency find work; to lighten the heavy financial burden on middle-class parents; to make health insurance affordable and accessible to everyone; and to create new paths to opportunity for people without college degrees. The work of developing such proposals has continued in the years since.
A few presidential candidates took up some of these reform ideas, and added some similar ideas of their own. But they did not highlight these ideas in their campaigns. Perhaps they were waiting for the general election, convinced that the primaries demanded an appeal to more familiar conservative policies; perhaps they thought the press was more interested in food fights between the candidates than in their proposals.
It turns out that GOP primary voters, just as much as the general electorate, have no great attachment to the old conservative agenda.
This now appears to have been a mistake. While the kind of ideas in Room to Grow do not add up to a panacea, either for the Americans they are designed to help or for conservative politicians, those Republicans hoping to be president could only have helped themselves by showing that they took these concerns seriously — especially if they had started showing it years ago. It turns out that GOP primary voters, just as much as the general electorate, have no great attachment to the old conservative agenda.
The vacuum created by an absence of conservative ideas that address popular concerns has been filled with ill-considered and unconservative ideas that purport to address them. Trump’s tariffs, for example, would at best raise the cost of living, hitting people with low to moderate incomes especially hard. At worst, they would also lead to a job-destroying trade war. Trump’s promises are extravagant and bear no relation to anything his deal-making could actually accomplish. If he were ever elected, Americans would become even more disillusioned than they already are.
Conservatives need to be in the business of offering the public real solutions rooted in our limited-government philosophy. Many voters, even people who aren’t already conservatives themselves, might find those solutions attractive. And even if they didn’t, at least they would know that we conservatives care about more than just capital-gains taxes.
— April Ponnuru is the senior advisor to the Conservative Reform Network and a former advisor to Governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.