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Republicans in 2012

Ronald Radosh

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on the debt ceiling crisis reinforces points made in the new issue of National Affairs in two important articles, the first by AEI Vice President Henry Olsen, and the second by Weekly Standard writer Jay Cost. What the poll reveals, as NBC’s Deputy Political Director Mark Murray writes, is that “Strong majorities of Democrats and independents prefer that Democratic congressional leaders make compromises in this budget debate, while almost 70 percent of independents want Republican leaders to do the same.”

For me the key phrase in Murray’s comment refers to the desire of independents. These are the very people that Republicans need to win in 2012 in order to defeat Barack Obama. The group includes the very important bloc of swing and working-class voters in states like Ohio that supported Hillary Clinton over Obama in 2008, and that have moved since then to vote for and support Republican candidates.

The poll also reveals, Murray writes, “Fifty-five percent of all respondents — including 63 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 47 percent of Republicans — believe that not raising the ceiling would be problematic. That’s compared with just 18 percent who say it wouldn’t be a real and serious problem.”

But “even among Tea Party supporters,” the Wall Street Journal notes, “a 47% plurality said failing to raise the debt ceiling would be a serious issue. That number mirrors the percentage of all Republicans, who worry about the consequences of doing nothing. And those people who feel their economic situation has gotten worse over the past 12 months are among the most worried, with 60% of them saying failure to lift the ceiling would have real and serious consequences.” The current poll is a major change from a poll taken one month ago, which revealed that “39% said the debt limit shouldn’t be raised, while 28% said it should.”

Now let me turn to some of the questions raised first by Henry Olsen. First, Olsen makes the point that there are two different kind of self-proclaimed conservatives. “Very conservative” Republicans who favor “rhetorically aggressive champions of conservative ideology,” and “somewhat conservative Republicans” who prefer “people who, while generally in agreement with ideological conservatives on their positions on the issues, are not as strident when it comes to ideology, rhetoric, or temperament.”

What is key is that in all but four Southern states, the “somewhat” conservative far outnumber those who are very conservative, and make up 35% of the electorate. They outnumber very conservative Republicans in both Florida and Michigan by a 3-2 margin, and 2-1 in New Hampshire. Even in South Carolina, he points out, they tie with the very-conservatives with 34% of the GOP electorate, while moderates and liberals are 32%. This means, Olsen writes, that the moderate-centrist bloc “have enormous influence over what kind of presidential candidate the Republican Party tends to nominate.”

What this suggests is that if Republicans want to defeat Obama in 2012, they need to nominate a candidate — perhaps someone yet not in the running — who can appeal to the somewhat conservative as well as to swing voters and white working-class voters who might otherwise vote Democratic. Olsen calls this potential candidate the “GOP dark horse.” He points out that in all previous recent GOP presidential primaries, the preferences of the very conservative voters “do not dictate the nominee,” and the force that does do this is “the somewhat-conservative bloc.” They were the ones who “provided solid margins to the more established, cautious candidate,” and as the primary victory of George W. Bush showed, the somewhat conservative voters flocked to “safe, solid candidates.”

In the current race, Olsen, who does not name names of actual candidates now in the field, writes that there is a great opportunity for “a relative newcomer who, without having established himself as the heir apparent within the Republican Party, could still convincingly pass himself off to somewhat-conservative voters as the measured establishment figure they seek.” Keeping this in mind, it is apparent why major Republican donors met with Chris Christie this week in an effort to urge him to get into the race.

For such a dark horse to emerge, Olsen argues that he or she must stand out from the pack, appeal to a large constituency, and court the moderate wing of voters as well as the ideologically oriented conservatives. And they must as well stand off against challenges from those further to their right, as Bush did against Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee. If such a candidate gets the nomination, he must then appeal to and gain the support in the presidential race of the different and conflicting Republican constituencies, not just a core constituency.

What will surprise a lot of readers is Olsen’s judgement that this candidate has to go beyond the Tea Party base, since, as he writes, “the breadth of Tea Party support among Republicans is smaller than commonly believed.” An April NBC/WSJ poll, he notes, showed that even Tea Partiers described themselves as Republicans first, and only 30% of the Republican electorate identified themselves first as Tea Partiers. Should a candidate cater only to the Tea Party, Olsen writes, they risk “alienating the 2012 GOP contest’s truly underserved constituency: Republican moderates.”

His point is that these moderates are not only a key part of a potential Republican victory, they “may be especially crucial in 2012,” since they comprise between 30% and 35% of the expected Republican electorate. For a Republican candidate to beat Obama, he or she must reflect and encompass the desires of social conservatives, but have enough of an appeal to win the votes of those moderates — Republican and independents — who are not social conservatives. He has to be “sufficiently conservative on social issues,” but “not defined by those issues.” Again, Chris Christie obviously played that role among New Jersey voters in the gubernatorial race.

As Olsen phrases it, the candidate must “combine conservative positions on key issues with a problem-solving approach that is principled but not ideological, and to display a calm, confident manner.” And that means a candidate who “does not preclude the possibility of reaching agreement with Democrats.“ (my emphasis)

I will leave my readers to go to Olsen’s article and consider his fascinating discussion of what might happen to our current contenders, and how and why he thinks current “establishment” candidates might bow out of the race, leaving a newcomer facing a Tea Party favorite.

In his article, Jay Cost raises other points that draw upon what Olsen argues. He points to the need to win the allegiance of working-class voters, those who are “less concerned about Washington’s inability to curb the growth of government than they are about Washington’s inability to spur the growth of wages.” In other words, the growing inflationary spiral combined with the falling power of wages that have remained stagnant has to be better addressed by Republicans.

Going over the history of the Democratic Party, Cost — who is writing a new book about the Democrats — talks about how the Democrats changed in the 60s, from a New Deal-Fair Deal party to that of a group representing the “post-material left,” a body comprised of a “white, comfortable middle-class movement that was focused on quality-of-life issues rather than on raising average Americans’ standard of living.” Their rise coincided with the collapse of the old once powerful bloc of organized industrial labor, which forced the Democrats to once concentrate on bread-and-butter issues. The unions that now support the Democrats back statist programs that reinforce the power of government sector unions — quite different from the union movement that backed the party in FDR’s day.

Obama, he points out, was the man who, in his own persona, represented “the post-materialist factions of the Democratic Party,” symbolized by the left-wing milieu of Hyde Park, the ACORN cadre and the community organizing community, and the government unions like the SEIU. In the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton represented “the old Democratic forces, like the white working-class voters of the industrial Midwest,” once central to the old New Deal-Fair Deal coalition that once put FDR and Harry Truman in office.

When Obama won, he and Nancy Pelosi “extended the reach of government, paying only lip service to curbing the deficit or spurring economic growth.” That means, Cost writes, that “addressing the nation’s economic problems will, by default, become the responsibility of Republicans.” Cost adds that if “America is to have any hope of resolving our fiscal crisis and restarting economic growth, the GOP will have to persuade voters that it deserves significant majorities in Washington.”

The question is how to achieve that end, and it will not be easy. Today’s Washington Post/ABC News poll has much the same outcome as the NBC/__Wall Street Journal__ poll. As it shows, “There is also growing dissatisfaction among Republicans with the hard-line stance of their congressional representatives: Fifty-eight percent say their leaders are not doing enough to strike a deal, up from 42 percent in March.” It reveals GOP “majorities favoring some of the specific changes advocated by the president, including higher income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.”

The poll also shows great dissatisfaction with President Obama, and his unwillingness to reach across the aisle. Sixty-two percent of independents say he is not doing enough to reach a deal, but these same voters say that 79 percent of Republicans are guilty of the same. If these voters are to vote against Obama, they have to be given a worthy reason to do just that.

Cost, further, argues that the Republican Party must be the part of prosperity, or as it once was called, the party of “the full dinner pail.” The country needs Republicans to have a pro-growth plan that fosters economic prosperity and that advances the material interests of all citizens, not just the wealthy and the corporations. If it does not, and if its leaders advocate a rollback to the America of pre-New Deal days and oppose a reasonable safety net in the absence of growth, independents, moderates and working-class voters will again vote Democratic, since the Democrats say they will stand by popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Cost calls for what Dwight Eisenhower did as president: a “respect for precedent — accepting the general goals and outlines of a modern welfare state while seeking to make it compatible with growth and prosperity.“ (my emphasis.) This means in addition to a policy that promotes economic growth, an “acceptance of a long-established social-welfare system to take care of people who cannot prosper on their own, especially the indigent and the elderly.”

We must stress that it is the reactionary Left, as I call it, that stands against plausible reforms that would save the social safety net, and that would lead to growth at the same time. Spending, as Cost says, has to be contained and not allowed to go above 21 percent of GDP, which would cripple economic growth. But the Republicans also must address the inequity of wages to inflation, and accept that something must be done about the continued fall and decline of real wages in the past decade.

If the Republicans do not do this, the Democrats will continue to promote “solutions” that make things worse, such as increased minimum wage legislation. And Democrats will continue to paint Republicans as the party of big business that is not concerned with the well-being of regular working people. We must therefore point out, as Cost writes, that “businesses that make enormous profits today by laying off workers and sending jobs overseas are no friends of the American growth agenda.” And it must be shown that big business and Wall Street has given more money to Democrats than Republicans, and has proven to be quite comfortable with the Obama leftist domestic agenda.

The issue is showing that Republicans have the interests of average Americans at heart and favor growth in the domestic economy that benefits them, not just large corporations. Cost says that Republicans should take a leaf from William McKinley’s playbook, and advance the interest of business for the sake of American workers.

I would also suggest taking a leaf from America’s first 20th century conservative president, Warren G. Harding. His economic policies — low taxes, debt reduction, and a smaller government with less regulation — promoted prosperity after a post-WW I depression. By the end of 1921, the industrial sector of the economy revived and entered a six year period of expansion. With new auto and trucking industries and a construction boom, and the advance of manufacturing — which climbed 54 percent from the depression of the early 20s — it had the result of raising the real income of workers employed regularly by 26 percent! That is one reason the fortunes of the political Left declined, despite an earlier increase of support for the founding leaders of the American socialist movement. It was not until the next Great Depression that the Left again found its fortunes were on the rise.

Now, with “millions of Americans left behind,” as Cost puts it, and the decrease of jobs in construction and manufacturing (the opposite of the situation as Harding ascended the presidency), the votes and support of these people are essential for a Republican victory. Hence, I concur with Cost’s judgement that “Republicans must remember that, unlike the base of their party, the political center of the country is pragmatic rather than ideological,” and is income oriented. If Republicans do not advance policies that satisfy them, the Democrats will win once again, and things will get much worse.

Republicans must, therefore, reduce the deficit, promote economic growth, and come up with new policies that benefit average working Americans. That is a tall order, and the candidate who addresses these issues is the candidate who will win in 2012.

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