Upscale vs. Downscale and the 2009 Election

Ramesh has written the definitive take on the implication of this week’s election for the Republican future for Time.

What these races suggest is that Republicans’ principal problem in recent elections has not been that they are too far right, or — as a lot of conservatives like to think — not far right enough. After all, voters turned on both moderate and conservative Republicans in the late Bush years. The problem has instead been that voters have not thought Republicans of any stripe had answers to their most pressing concerns. Addressing those concerns, rather than repositioning itself along the ideological spectrum, is the party’s main challenge.

Patrick Ruffini has followed up with a post on how conservative candidates should frame public policy solutions.

Because very few independents care about ideological name-checks, they won’t be swayed by scare tactics trying to persuade them that Candidate X is the ideological second-coming of Attila the Hun. We saw this with the thesis attacks. Candidates have wide latitude to run as who they actually are, so long as they can persuade voters they’ll deal with the bread and butter issues (which was McDonnell’s calling card).

In a purple state like Virginia, you can win by running as a liberal and a problem-solver (Kaine), as a moderate and a problem-solver (Warner), and as a strong conservative and a problem-solver (McDonnell).

The goal is not to bang on about the liberalism of your opponent, but rather to construct a narrative that connects your policy agenda to concrete outcomes.

Republicans can be specific, detailed, and confident in putting forward solutions relevant to the middle class, while also being more conservative than we have been in recent years (especially with the Bush era spending binge). There’s not an either/or tradeoff between conservatism and a policy focus, something the McDonnell campaign proved in Virginia this year.

Earlier this year, Ramesh and I wrote an article for NR on the notion, championed by a number of conservatives, that the GOP needs to move upscale, to increase its appeal among affluent, college-educated voters by moving to the left on social issues. We argued that many of these affluent voters who’ve turned to the Democrats are just as left-of-center on economic issues as they are on social issues, and that a shrewder strategy involved shifting towards a problem-solving mode.

An alternative strategy would largely maintain the Republican party’s social conservatism while moving to the center on economic issues. That shift on economic issues need not take the form of supporting higher taxes. It would, rather, mean placing less emphasis on tax cuts for high earners and more on tax cuts for people in the middle of the income spectrum. It would mean working harder to get the public to associate Republicans with free-market policies to make health care more affordable and secure for the middle class.

This strategy, in turn, would help Republicans shed some of the cultural baggage accumulated during the Bush years.

A Republican party that advanced downscale cultural conservatives’ economic interests, meanwhile, would not need to lean so heavily on their cultural resentments to win their votes. Republicans’ caricaturing of Democrats as effete and unpatriotic latte-sippers has reinforced the GOP’s own reputation as anti-intellectual and philistine, and this reputation has harmed it in upscale precincts. An economic agenda more attractive to the country would reduce the party’s reliance on cultural polarization.

My sense is that Republicans are moving in this direction. Rather than chase after social liberals who are allergic to the conservative base for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to aesthetic distaste, a growing number of candidates are running “common-sense” campaigns premised on the need for sustainable fiscal policies and the central importance of private sector job growth. This appeals to middle and working class voters who are keenly aware of the danger of their tax dollars being wasted, and who have grown increasingly skeptical of massive government undertakings. Incidentally, my guess is that this doesn’t just apply to big new domestic programs: the public also has far less appetite for expensive military interventions, which complicates matters for those of us who believe the U.S. should maintain or even increase its commitment to a stable Afghanistan.

Democrats focus on the Tea Party movement because it represents a kind of wish fulfillment. Conservatives delighted in the ideological exuberance of Howard Dean’s progressive youth, and they were unprepared for Barack Obama’s slickly post-ideological campaign that drew on the left’s energy while running a disciplined centrist campaign. We’ll see if history repeats itself. Like a lot of people, my gut tells me that Sarah Palin or perhaps Mike Huckabee will be the Howard Dean of 2012. Of course, that would suggest that the Republican nominee in 2012 will be the right’s answer to John Kerry, which is a prospect too disturbing to contemplate for very long.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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