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Republicans, heal thyselves

Special to The Times

Republicans have been in a bit of a funk lately. Voters (especially the young ones) are increasingly identifying themselves as Democrats, and current projections give Obama the edge on Nov. 4 with the GOP losing seats in both the House and the Senate. Come Nov. 5, Republicans may be doing a lot of soul-searching.

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam -- a pair of ambitious young editors at the Atlantic -- have a plan for them: If you want to build that elusive lasting majority you’ve been talking about for decades, you need a domestic policy program that deals with working-class anxieties. Really help the working class, they say, and you will win elections from here till eternity.

Part revisionist history, part wonky policy program, “Grand New Party” is brimming with ideas -- but of variable quality.

The book’s best argument is that social issues “aren’t just red herrings distracting the working class from economic struggles. . . . Rather they’re at the root of working-class insecurity.” Coastal elites can mock values voters all they want, the book argues, but for those who live in a world where drugs, divorce and out-of-wedlock births wreak havoc, the traditional family is not some antiquated hang-up, it’s the crucible of economic stability.

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But things get fuzzier when the two start arguing their working-class-as-linchpin-of-electoral-success story. Up through the mid-1960s, they contend, these voters were solid New Deal Democrats. But by the 1960s, rising crime, declining social mores and a drifting Democratic Party left them anxious and alienated.

Into this void stepped clever Richard Nixon, “the architect of a working-class conservatism that would shape American politics for the next quarter century.” Douthat and Salam see Nixon as sincere in wanting to help the working class (he even proposed a guaranteed annual income) but thwarted by ideologues on both sides.

They also want to reclaim Reagan as a working-class ally, noting that his famous remark that “government is the problem” has been taken out of context -- Reagan actually qualified it with “in the present crisis.” “It was conservatism that promised to fix the welfare state,” Douthat and Salam write of Reagan, “rather than to abolish it.”

Heck, they even give George W. Bush credit for “making the Republican Party responsive to the working class,” because he pushed education initiatives and funding for job training and business start-ups.

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And yet, for all the focus on sensitivity toward the working class as the key to Republican presidential wins over the last 40 years, the authors have a remarkably loose conception of, well, the working class: “the non-college educated voters who make up roughly half of the American electorate.”

Somehow, Douthat and Salam claim insight into the singular collective desires of this half of the country (urban and rural, black and white, Protestant and Catholic, all apparently as one) -- but present virtually no polling data. The book is full of phrases like “the working class wants”; if they mean the white working class (as they often seem to), it’s only fair to acknowledge this group as an ever-shrinking slice of the American electorate.

The other puzzling piece is why all this Republican populism never turned into much actual policy (and thus never solidified the elusive lasting majority). To their credit, Douthat and Salam seem genuinely frustrated by this. But their only scapegoat is political ineptitude. Well, here’s another idea: Maybe the underlying political economy of the Republican Party is largely about keeping big business happy, and the aggressive free market philosophy that holds this alliance together is not particularly concerned with how the other half lives.

Still, Douthat and Salam, stubborn idealists that they are, refuse to give up on the party’s supposed best intentions. Instead, they propose a wide-ranging policy program to finally do right by the working class. But their essentially post-partisan melange of government interventions -- even with its family-centered, anti-handouts, pro-markets-and-innovation focus -- seems inconceivably far from where the largely anti-government Republican coalition is these days. Though maybe that is their point. Grand New Party, remember. Well, good luck.

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Moreover, although their proposals are generally smart and intriguing, their larger claim that a lasting majority naturally follows from a detailed domestic agenda seems way too hopeful. This was the Democrats’ approach for years -- and they kept running into the reality that very few Americans care for policy details, especially working-class voters who tend to be the least informed. Meanwhile, Republicans talked in sweeping, animating themes (Values! Patriotism! Freedom!), giving folks the simple emotional connections they craved from politics. Now that Obama seems to have finally figured this out, how ironic it would be if the Republicans started to go all wonky.

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Lee Drutman is co-author of “The People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy.”


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