The Agenda

Brief Thoughts on Artur Davis and the Grand GOP Rethink

This week, Artur Davis has written two posts — “The Republican Dilemma” and “The New Republicans” — that offer a vision for a post-Obama GOP. Both are excellent. In the latter, Davis suggests that Republicans look to Bill Clinton as a model for how the party might neutralize its disadvantages and build its base:

Well before Bill Clinton mastered the skill of political survival, and became the most consequential ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt, he pulled off a more pivotal achievement. Clinton essentially restored the Democratic Party as an electoral force by shoring up its credibility on fiscal policy, social policy, and race, and in so doing, he drew two crucial blocs firmly back into his party: blue collar whites and suburban professionals. The modern electoral map, which allots most of the industrial north and Midwest to Democrats and in which suburb-heavy states like California and New Jersey have not been contested in a generation, is the legacy of Clinton’s restoration project.

Republicans face a comparable predicament to the one pre-Clinton Democrats faced in the late eighties, and to compound the analogy, it is a challenge along roughly the same fronts with a very similar alignment of voter blocs. If Walter Mondale’s Democrats seemed wedded at the hip to their union benefactors, today’s Republicans seem just as tied to corporate lobbies or billionaires. If the party that nominated George McGovern seemed mired in the grip of left-leaning activists bent on a radical redesign of social policy, Republicans appear to be under the sway of one network and a bevy of factions who are just as bent on a counter-cultural revolution from the right. The combination of money and noise exerted veto power on late eighties Democrats, much as contemporary Republicans are constrained by their own base.

Davis explains how welfare reform helped blunt the perception that Democrats intended to reward irresponsible behavior, and he suggests, as one example, that a more concerted GOP effort to address the housing crisis might have undermined the widespread belief that Republicans put the interests of Wall Street over those of middle-income homeowners. Davis’s posts represent a complement to David Brooks’ latest column, which includes the following passage:

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me.

Let’s just look at one segment, Asian-Americans. Many of these people are leading the lives Republicans celebrate. They are, disproportionately, entrepreneurial, industrious and family-oriented. Yet, on Tuesday, Asian-Americans rejected the Republican Party by 3 to 1. They don’t relate to the Republican equation that more government = less work.

My own view is that Asian American and Latinos are best understood through a non-ethnic lens, and that the voting patterns in both constituencies largely reflect labor market position and cultural affiliation. As Heather Mac Donald observes, a disproportionately large share of non-elderly Latinos rely heavily on social transfers, in large part because Latino households tend to have relatively low incomes. Asian American households, in contrast, tend to be affluent and situated in dense neighborhoods, and the Asian American population is disproportionately non-Christian. Just as Jewish voters tend to be skeptical of conservative cultural appeals that resonate with white Anglo voters who identify as Christians, there is some reason to believe that Asian American Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and other non-Christians are less favorably disposed to movement conservatism, despite the fact that, as with upper-middle-income college-educated white Anglos, these voters lead very bourgeois lives. 

Regardless, the broader point is an important one: many moderate, instinctively pro-market voters are puzzled and even alienated by what they see — sometimes unfairly — as reflexively anti-government sentiment. One is reminded of Evan Soltas’s analysis of Republican rhetoric:

Although many of their policy prescriptions have gone unchanged since the 1990s — Mitt Romney’s plan to cut income tax rates 20 percent echoes 1996 candidate Bob Dole’s proposed 15-percent cut — they have executed a unilateral retreat from the rhetorical center.

There are a few issues on which Republicans have lurched to the right. In the 2008 election, for example, John McCain’s platform included a carbon cap-and-trade plan, which today Romney wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. On most issues, however, the Republican platform has gone unchanged, whereas the rhetoric has taken a turn to the Manichean, invoking a voice of puritanical extremism that reflects the policy views of but the slimmest sliver of the party’s right wing.

It’s as if they are applying the strategy which has worked for Obama, and fantastically well for Clinton before him, in reverse.

David Frum’s excellent new ebook How Romney Lost offers a somewhat different take, focusing more on what he sees as the substantive inadequacy of Republican prescriptions for an era of sluggish growth and wage stagnation for less-skilled and mid-skilled workers. Because this is a central preoccupation of mine, I was happy to see Frum write about this set of issues with such clarity. Yet Frum’s ebook also aims to diagnose some of the intellectual challenges facing the right. He has an astute passage early on in which he describes how conservatives were willing to embrace Romney as a moderate when it looked as though moderation was a winning message:

When the presidency was on the line, conservatives awoke from the ideological fantasies of the previous four years. They regained clarity about how elections are fought and won. They granted Romney the freedom of action that they had denied him until the very last minute. Unfortunately, that clarity arrived too late, and the risk is high that it will dissipate with the election behind us. Despite the record and the facts, we will soon hear that Romney lost because of the moderation that rescued him in October.

The implication is that had Republicans given Romney greater freedom of action earlier on — for example, had he not felt overwhelming pressure to embrace a tax proposal that struck middle-income voters as both irrelevant to their interests and unrealistic as a means of staving off a primary challenger — he would have had greater success. This sounds right to me, though I think moderation as such is less the issue than demonstrating an understanding of the origins of middle class discontent, and I imagine Frum would agree. 

One disagreement I have with Frum is over social issues, though the difference is a subtle one and it is something I imagine we’ll discuss extensively in the weeks and months to come. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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