Last week, Jack Metzgar considered how definitions of class are being used in political analysis, noting that the press and some political analysts have defined the working class either as those who don’t have a college education or as those earning less than $50,000. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam use the first definition as the foundation for their new book, The Grand New Party: How the Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
Briefly, Douthat and Salam believe that both Democrats and Republicans have misunderstood the shift in working-class voting patterns – from Democratic to Republican – that Jack described. When Democrats argue that the working class has been distracted from class interests by the war and national security and symbolic and cultural issues, they fail to understand that those “symbolic” issues have been at the heart working-class insecurity. For example, crime, welfare policy, immigration, and especially family values are closely tied to financial security and social mobility. At the same time, Douthat and Salam contend that Republicans have overrated the working class’s philosophical shift to conservative Goldwater/Reagan values.
Rather, they argue, Republicans appeal most effectively to working-class voters when they engage in “limited government pragmatism rather than small government Puritanism.” This “applied neoconservatism” reflects the domestic policy-minded neo-conservative approach last seen in the 1970s. Based on this analysis, Douthat and Salam argue that Republicans should rethink social policy formulations to include more family-friendly policies such as changes in the tax code to encourage family building, tax credits for parents who care for children at home, more spending on highways (because suburbs are better than cities for raising children), job subsidies for entry level employment, summer enrichment programs for poor kids, more cops on the streets, new school funding formulations, more progressive income tax, and a national healthcare plan similar to that being offered by Democrats. No doubt, these policy ideas will resonate with many working-class and middle-class voters.
One might ask if this is just another version of the Republican’s bait and switch and campaign-based Democratic-lite politics used to entice working-class voters. We all remember Bush’s promises of “compassionate conservatism.” That may have been persuasive in the past, but not this time. Deep divisions split the Republican party between the small government “moneycons” who run the party and younger big government social conservatives and Sam’s Club Republicans (aka the working class) who think the Goldwater/Reagan wing of the party has run out of ideas and that a political massacre is on the horizon. After all, Republicans have already lost three special elections in solid Republican districts in the last year, and over 80% of the population now believes that the country is on the wrong track.
If Douthat and Salam are correct, John McCain will have difficult task navigating between his larger donors and more progressive social conservatives within the Republican Party. This is going to be particularly true in swing states like Ohio. In the past, shrinking Northeast Ohio – long a Democratic stronghold — has been balanced by socially conservative, Republican-dominated and growing Southwest Ohio. Yet, in 2006, Republicans were largely swept out of state offices as result of job losses, a “culture of corruption,” and growing discontent among the working-class and social conservatives over economic and social policy. Job losses have continued, especially in automotive manufacturing and particularly in the largely conservative Dayton/Cincinnati area. Furthermore, as we found when we conducted focus groups with the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, working-class discontent with the war had grown significantly. Support for the war and security issues were central to the Bush victory in Ohio in 2004, but this year the key will be economics. Both candidates, but especially McCain, need to provide specific plans that economically support working-class Ohioans, if they are to win their support in 2008.