The Agenda

David Frum on the Central Dilemma Facing the Romney Campaign

David Frum’s latest CNN column offers a useful framework for understanding why the Romney campaign finds itself in an awkward position: 

Romney’s core problem is this: He heads a party that must win two-thirds of the white working-class vote in presidential elections to compensate for its weakness in almost every demographic category. The white working class is the most pessimistic and alienated group in the electorate, and it especially fears and dislikes the kind of financial methods that gained Romney his fortune.

Romney has a strong potential defense: Bain was in the business of making companies more efficient and profitable. Downsizing and outsourcing were necessary — and often indispensable — means to that end. In a growing economy, the workers who lost their jobs should find new jobs elsewhere, and it’s precisely the relentless search for profitability that causes economies to grow in the first place.

That’s an argument that, to borrow an old joke of Henry Kissinger’s, is not only convincing but has the additional merit of being true. However, it’s not an argument that appeals much to the voters Romney most intensely needs to win. Hence his unleashing of the war room — but in the end, there’s only so much a war room can do.

Ross Douthat and I wrote a book that addressed the larger question of how to reconcile the electoral demands of the GOP’s white working-class constituency with the insights of pro-market conservatism. Center-right politicians have struggled to strike the right balance due to a number of factors: path dependence, or the difficulty of embracing new policy approaches in an aging coalition; the widespread alienation of social scientists and policy scholars from the Republican Party, which can be understood in part as the flip side of the GOP’s success in appealing to socially conservative populists; and the lack of a clear consensus about the underlying problems facing the U.S. economy.

This last point is more important than is commonly understood. In the late 1970s, for example, supply-side economics and monetarism were insurgent ideas that were eventually embraced by influential conservatives in politics and media. Today, conservative views on monetary policy are extremely fragmented, with a large number of grassroots and elite conservatives embracing a curious form of hard-money populism and a small minority of right-of-center policy intellectuals having embraced market monetarism. And on fiscal policy, there hasn’t been much movement from a narrow focus on the top marginal tax rate, despite the efforts of thinkers like Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein (who’ve urged us to pay greater attention to the costs associated with human capital investment) and Alan Viard (who has focused on the virtues of consumption taxation and why it is compatible with somewhat higher marginal tax rates on high wage income). Resistance to policy innovation on these fronts comes in no small part from legacy conservative institutions that had in the late 1970s and early 1980s been insurgent conservative institutions.

But the work of persuasion doesn’t happen in smooth, linear fashion. Rather, as James True, Bryan Jones, and Frank Baumgartner have argued, it is characterized by long periods of stability interrupted by cascades of change:

Punctuated-equilibrium theory seeks to explain a simple observation: Political processes are generally characterized by stability and incrementalism, but occasionally they produce large-scale departures from the past. Stasis, rather than crisis, typically characterizes most policy areas, but crises do occur. Large-scale changes in public policies are constantly occurring in one area or another of American politics and policymaking as public understandings of existing problems change. Important governmental programs are sometimes altered dramatically, even if most of the time they continue as they did in the previous year. While both stability and change are important elements of the policy process, most policy models have been designed to explain, or at least have been most successful at explaining, either the stability or the change. Punctuated-equilibrium theory encompasses both.

The key move is to have an agenda at the ready for when a crisis ultimately emerges. And one of the central problems facing the U.S. political right is that in many critical domains, e.g., health reform and financial reform, there isn’t a clear consensus among policy intellectuals and policymakers. That is, there is considerable disagreement about the nature of the problem in question and thus how to address it through policy innovation. I actually think that considerable progress has been made on health reform in particular, due in part to the post-PPACA salience of the issue. But that doesn’t change the fact that, as the neoliberal policy analyst Josh Barro, who has emerged as a tough but (mostly) fair critic of the right, has argued, conservatives tend to agree on “repeal” without agreeing on how to “replace.”

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