The public has never fully trusted Republicans to advance the economic interests of the middle class rather than those of the rich, and that problem may be getting more acute. That’s the reason Republicans never became the country’s majority party after the Democrats lost that status. It’s the reason Mitt Romney beat President Obama by only one point in the exit polls on the question of who would better handle the economy. It’s the reason Obama found it so easy to convince 53 percent of the electorate that Romney’s policies generally favor the rich. It’s part of the reason Romney and other Republicans have done so poorly among Hispanics, young people, and single women, and sometimes, as in the election just finished, failed to motivate blue-collar whites to vote in great numbers.
If Obama’s second term is sufficiently disastrous, Republicans may bounce back without having to solve this problem. To achieve lasting success, though, they will have to find a way to make a plausible case that conservative policies will yield tangible benefits for most people. That means, first, that they will have to devise policies with the actual circumstances of today in mind. So, for example, they will have to rethink an approach to taxes that has been frozen in 1981 for too long. Across-the-board cuts in income-tax rates worked politically at that time, but for many years now, middle-class families have been paying more in payroll taxes than in income taxes.
Second, Republicans will have to communicate the positive difference their policies will make in the lives of most people. For a major political party, they are surprisingly inconsistent about telling people about the payoff from their proposals. Romney’s policy advisers, like John McCain’s in 2008, surely believed that their candidate’s platform would increase wages. Neither candidate did much to share the news with voters (although the Romney campaign in its closing weeks sporadically made the point).
Giving this advice to Republicans strikes some people as equivalent to telling them to drink up a lake and stand on their heads: The project is impossible. Josh Barro, writing in Bloomberg View, asks why Republicans have not solved their middle-class economics problem and then answers his own question.
The reason, unfortunately, is not simply that Republicans lack the imagination to come up with ideas to get higher wages, more jobs and affordable health care to the middle class. It is that there is no set of policies that is both acceptable to conservatives and likely to achieve these goals.
Republicans cannot achieve universal health care, he writes, without either spending hundreds of billions on federal subsidies or reforming medicine in a way that sharply reduces doctors’ pay. “Conservatives simply do not want to do either of those things,” Barro observes. He goes through a list of other policies that might help the middle class but that, he thinks, conservatives are unlikely to embrace, before concluding: “Any conceivable agenda that is likely to be effective in getting health care, jobs and higher wages in the hands of the American masses will be unconservative, at least on the terms by which most American conservatives define conservatism.”
It is a bleak conclusion, at least for those of us who, unlike Barro, consider ourselves conservatives — who wish, that is, to see the middle class prosper, taxes remain low, judicial conservatives get appointed to the bench, and so on. American conservatism may, however, be a little more capacious than Barro thinks, or than it has demonstrated itself to be in recent years.