The history of the child credit, however, argues otherwise. In 1994, Republicans ran on the “Contract with America” in a successful bid to take control of the House for the first time in 40 years. The major tax cut the contract proposed was a $500 tax credit for children. In 1997, the Republican Congress enacted the credit as part of a budget deal with President Clinton. Running for president in 2000, George W. Bush proposed doubling the credit to $1,000.
The tax credit is popular, which is why both parties in the tax talks currently under way in Washington, D.C., say they favor its extension. In practice, though, it has been Republicans who have mostly been responsible for letting parents keep more of their money to spend as they wish, and perhaps this should not be surprising. (The middle-class parents who would benefit most from Stein’s idea tend to be Republicans, after all.) The Republican position on child credits was probably an important reason the party held on to its advantage on taxes in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. For Republicans to go back to their winning formula might require some legislative creativity, since the nation’s fiscal condition is much worse than it was when the credit was created and expanded. It would not, however, require any ideological innovation.
The cost of higher education is another area where Republicans could make headway. Simplifying financial aid, requiring colleges that receive direct or indirect federal funding to disclose how their graduates do in the job market (preferably by major), encouraging online learning, and creating alternative forms of credentialing could all promote upward mobility. Some Democrats are surely interested in such reforms, but because they have emotional and sociological ties to the higher-ed status quo, Republicans should be able to outflank them — if they take up the issue. Offhand, no segments of the Right that would oppose these efforts come to mind.
Republicans already have a winning message on energy, which they have been dogged in their determination to make as cheap as possible. They have promoted energy exploration and development and opposed cap-and-trade and other plans that would impose heavy taxes on the use of energy. They would be in an even stronger position to reject liberal prescriptions on energy if they supported relatively modest government funding of research on mitigating the risks of global warming.
Doubtless there are other areas where recognizably conservative initiatives could improve the lot of most Americans. Formulating a conservative agenda that might have broader appeal than the current one will have to be the work of many people. It is a task that is particularly urgent, not only because of the election results, but also because the traditional middle-class entitlements are going to have to become less generous.
The preceding is a beginning: a very rough outline of a conservative agenda to cut the costs of energy, health care, child-rearing, and higher education. Each initiative would raise the middle-class standard of living. None involve the further centralization of decision-making authority in Washington, D.C. Rather they rely on letting people keep more of what they earn and expanding their options. None require conservatives to cross any previously drawn red lines. Together, they identify institutions that too often frustrate the achievement of the American dream — the health-care system, higher education, the fiscal-transfer state — and reform them to make possible, and reward, individual initiative and familial self-sufficiency.
Perhaps conservatives will not take up the challenge of proving that our political philosophy has something to offer for most people, in our day no less than in times past. If so, it will be our own fault, and not because the thing was beyond the wit of man.