The Case of the Missing White Voters Revisited. By Sean Trende. Real Clear Politics, June 21, 2013. Demographics and the GOP, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
Rand Paul Is a Savvier Politician Than Karl Rove Would Prefer. By Conor Friedersdorf. The Atlantic, June 27, 2013.
Watch Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s video concerning his 2016 agenda, if only for the part where he pauses to take a drink from his union skull chalice. The moderate Midwestern tone here drones a bit – dynamic this isn’t – but look at how he’s marketing his legislative agenda in the frame of the 2016 run he’s almost certain to make: it’s all lower- and middle-income focused. It’s worth considering why Walker won his recall election – it was in not insignificant ways due to these voters, who gave him more support than might be expected given his conservative views (he even got 38% of the overall union vote, though of course that was more from the private sector unions). He touts one of the largest tax cuts in Wisconsin history, with a larger tax rate cut for those making 15-50k; teases his higher ed reforms; follows Bobby Jindal’s lead in pursuing a statewide expansion of school choice; spins the Medicaid expansion refusal handily; and even talks up federal deficit reduction. Walker is still getting slammed by all the usual suspects – for cutting entitlements, passing tax cuts for the rich, and sneaking through what one legislator called “vouchers on steroids” – he’s just savvier at pitching it.
In their March piece in Commentary, Gerson and Pete Wehner went for all of these points with gusto. Gerson’s criticism of Paul, and libertarian-ish conservatism generally, is that it won’t address his first point from that piece – the economic challenges of working and middle class Americans. But the rest of his prescribed agenda doesn’t go toward that populist aim any more than Gerson’s support for getting involved in even more international conflicts. It seems very unlikely to me that shoving through the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, expanding environmental and anti-emission regulations, guilt-ridding prison reform, trying to convince Hollywood to promote marriage and family, and making the case for getting involved in Syria is going to be an agenda that matches up with the lived experience of Americans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. This has little in common with Walker’s more aggressive approach. Instead, it sounds like an agenda designed to appeal to upper class white people.
4. The GOP faces a tough choice.
But the GOP still has something of a choice to make. One option is to go after these downscale whites. As I’ll show in Part 2, it can probably build a fairly strong coalition this way. Doing so would likely mean nominating a candidate who is more Bush-like in personality, and to some degree on policy. This doesn’t mean embracing “big government” economics or redistribution full bore; suspicion of government is a strain in American populism dating back at least to Andrew Jackson. It means abandoning some of its more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more “America first” on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics.
For now, the GOP seems to be taking a different route, trying to appeal to Hispanics through immigration reform and to upscale whites by relaxing its stance on some social issues. I think this is a tricky road to travel, and the GOP has rarely been successful at the national level with this approach. It certainly has to do more than Mitt Romney did, who at times seemed to think that he could win the election just by corralling the small business vote. That said, with the right candidate it could be doable. It’s certainly the route that most pundits and journalists are encouraging the GOP to travel, although that might tell us more about the socioeconomic standing and background of pundits and journalists than anything else.
Of course, the most successful Republican politicians have been those who can thread a needle between these stances: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and (to a lesser degree) Bush 43 have all been able to talk about conservative economic stances without horrifying downscale voters. These politicians are rarities, however, and the GOP will most likely have to make a choice the next few cycles about which road it wants to travel.