Thursday, November 10, 2005

Whither the Elephant?

The Moose ponders what's next for the GOP?

The Bushie regime is crashing. The corruption of principle is rampant. Social Security privatization was a disaster. Cutting taxes has lost its resonance. Rove's ownership society was a flop. Spending is out of control.

Middle class Americans are anxious about their economic future and Bushies appear woefully out of touch. And increasingly, the Republican constituency consists of middle income and even economically down-scale pro-government social conservatives.

Paul Glastris writes in an important piece in the Washington Monthly,

"Americans love the idea of choice—in the abstract. But when faced with the actual choices conservatives present, they aren't buying. The reason is that conservatives have constructed choices that fail to take human nature into account. People like to have choices but feel quickly overwhelmed when they lack the information or expertise to decide confidently, and they turn downright negative when the choices themselves seem to put what they already have at risk. Conservatives were bound to make these mistakes because their very aim has been to transfer more risks from government to individuals so that government's size and expenditures can be cut. That's not a bargain most Americans will accept. They like choice just fine, but they won't trade security to get it."

So what is a plutocratic party to do about an unpopular agenda and a growing social conservative base that wants government to provide a social safety net? Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam offer an interesting and imaginative alternative Republican agenda in the new Weekly Standard titled, "The Party of Sam's Club."

Rejecting the Bushie "stay the course" and the small government options, Douthat and Salam write,

"The third possibility--and the best, both for the party and the country as a whole--would be to take the "big-government conservatism" vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability. This wouldn't mean an abandonment of small-government objectives, but it would mean recognizing that these objectives--individual initiative, social mobility, economic freedom--seem to be slipping away from many less-well-off Americans, and that serving the interests of these voters means talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can't have an "ownership society" in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own."

The authors go on to offer several intriguing proposals including a childhood allowance of cash payments, wage subsidies for low income workers, an ill-defined health coverage program and a "pro-family" consumption tax. While some of the proposals are of questionable merit, they are shrewdly targeted to appeal to middle class families. It is the next step in big government conservatism. It is a "Disraeli"-type conservatism that recognizes that government should help relieve the economic anxiety of its social conservative base,

"Many of the issues that the Republican party rode to power remain salient today, of course. The GOP doesn't need to rethink its support for a strong national defense, for instance, or its commitment to social conservatism. But having risen to power at a time when most Americans were worried about losing their economic freedom, the party needs to adapt to a new reality--namely, that today, Americans are increasingly worried about their economic security--and reorient its agenda to address those concerns."

The current Norquist "leave us alone" model of conservatism is collapsing. Will Republicans be bold enough to adopt the "Sam's Club" approach? Unlikely - the Bush White House has a dilemma on its hands - if it reinforces the right - it further weakens its hold on the center. If it attempts to reach out to the center, the right will be in rebellion. And the donor class must continue to be reimbursed with tax cuts and other goodies. Only if Iraq improves, energy prices stabilize and the economy soars can the President's popularity improve - at this point conventional Administration initiatives will have minimal impact.

However, if Republicans adopted this alternative agenda it would offer a significant challenge to the Democrats - a party is increasingly up-scale and socially liberal. Perhaps, Democrats should come up with their own economic and cultural proposals that appeal to middle class families.

The political paradox of the moment is that while Republicans must offer security to middle income voters, Democrats must show that they can offer choice and flexibility in the delivery of government programs. The Washington Monthly offers some innovative choice-oriented programs for progressives.

Democrats have reason to be exuberant over the Republican woes. However, they should avoid complacence. Let's be clear - Americans don't like Republican rule but they view Democrats with suspicion. And working families need to know that the national party cares more for them and their values than liberal special interest groups.

That means that Democrats must connect with the Hank Hill Democrats. And Democrats did just that in Virginia where Tim Kaine continued the smart Warner tradition. Kaine adroitly defended himself from Republican attacks by pointing out that his religious faith opposed both abortion and the death penalty.

The experience of the Moose is that the Republicans thrive on the excesses on liberalism. When Democrats move to the progressive center, Republicans are deprived of a target and conservative ideology cannot save them. Don't just take the Moose's word for it, consider this from the liberal Village Voice,

"If there are any real winners in yesterday's elections, they're the center-right Democrats gathered around the Democratic Leadership Council."
-- Posted at 8:30 AM | Link to this post | Email this post