First, and most important
, is focusing on the economic concerns of working-and middle-class Americans, many of whom now regard the Republican Party as beholden to “millionaires and billionaires” and as wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans. This is a durable impression—witness Bill Clinton’s effective deployment of it more than 20 years ago and its continued resonance during the 2012 campaign when Team Obama portrayed Mitt Romney as a plutocrat who delighted in shutting down factories and moving jobs overseas. Sure enough, in November exit polls, 81 percent of voters said that Barack Obama “cared for people like me”; a mere 18 percent said the same of Romney. They also showed that a majority of Americans (53 percent) said Governor Romney’s policies would generally favor the rich, versus only 34 percent who said he would favor the middle class.
In developing a response to these perceptions, Republicans should not downplay their traditional strengths. Given the feeble path of economic growth, reasonable tax rates and a rational tax code are prerequisites for future job creation at sufficient levels. Given the unsustainable path of health-oriented entitlement spending—which threatens to crowd out every other form of federal spending—some party must rise to responsibility. And given the vast potential economic advantage of newly discovered energy sources—both natural gas and shale oil—Republicans should stand for their responsible exploitation.
But gaining a fair hearing on any of these issues requires changing an image that the GOP is engaged in class warfare on behalf of the upper class. Republicans could begin by becoming visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare: the vast network of subsidies and tax breaks extended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to wealthy and well-connected corporations. Such benefits undermine free markets and undercut the public’s confidence in American capitalism. They also increase federal spending. The conservative case against this high-level form of the dole is obvious, and so is the appropriate agenda: cutting off the patent cronyism that infects federal policy toward energy, health care, and the automobile and financial-services industries, resulting in a pernicious and corrupting system of interdependency. “Ending corporate welfare as we know it”: For a pro-market party, this should be a rich vein to mine.
Four years after the economic and ethical failure of major financial institutions set off a cascade of national suffering, Republicans are still viewed as opponents of institutional reform. Here, Republicans need a touch of Teddy Roosevelt. America’s five largest banks hold assets equal to 60 percent of our economy, a highly dangerous concentration and source of undue political power. These mega-banks—both “too big to fail” and “too complex to manage”—are the unnatural result of government subsidies, not market forces. By supporting the breakup of the big banks, Republicans would encourage competition and create a decentralized system more likely to survive future economic earthquakes.
Together with this, the GOP could commit itself to ensuring a greater degree of social mobility across the board. At the center of any such effort lies a thoroughgoing reform of the federal role in education, focusing on public and private choice, charter schools, testing and accountability, and merit pay for teachers and principals. But a mobility agenda might also include measures to improve job training, encourage college attendance and completion among the poor, discourage teen pregnancy, improve infant and child health, and encourage wealth-building and entrepreneurship.
By tackling such issues in creative, practical, and persistent ways, the GOP would also be making a statement of political philosophy. Rather than being exclusively focused on budget numbers or individual economic rights, Republicans would be demonstrating a limited but active role for government: helping individuals attain the skills and values—the social capital—that allow them to succeed in a free economy. The Republican goal is equal opportunity, not equal results. But equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social achievement, for which government shares some responsibility. The proper reaction to egalitarianism is not indifference. It is the promotion of a fluid society in which aspiration is honored and rewarded.
, a new Republican agenda requires the party to welcome rising immigrant groups. When it comes to immigration, the GOP has succeeded in taking an issue of genuine concern—namely, the lack of border security—and speaking about it in ways offensive to legal immigrants, including vast numbers of Hispanics and Asian Americans (with whom Romney did even worse than Hispanics).
During the 2012 Republican primary season, for example, with candidates vying for the title of who could be toughest on illegal immigration, Herman Cain described his ideal border fence like this: “It’s going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, ‘It will kill you—Warning.’” In case anyone missed the point, Cain added helpfully that the sign would be written “in English and in Spanish.”
Instead of signaling that America is a closed society, which it is not and never has been, Republicans would do better to stress the assimilating power of American ideals—the power whereby strangers become neighbors and fellow citizens. In this connection, they would also do better, for themselves and for the country, to call for increasing the number of visas issued to seasonal and permanent farm workers; to champion a greater stress on merit and skill in admitting legal immigrants; and, for the 12 million or so undocumented workers in the United States, to provide an attainable if duly arduous path to legal status and eventually citizenship.
Conservative critics of such reforms sometimes express the conviction that Hispanic voters are inherently favorable to bigger government and thus more or less permanently immune to Republican appeals. It is a view that combines an off-putting sense of ideological superiority—apparently “those people” are not persuadable—with a pessimism about the drawing power of conservative ideals. Such attitudes are the prerogative of a sectarian faction. They are not an option for a political party, which cannot afford to lose the ambition to convince.
, Republicans need to express and demonstrate a commitment to the common good, a powerful and deeply conservative concept. There is an impression—exaggerated but not wholly without merit—that the GOP is hyper-individualistic. During the Republican convention, for example, we repeatedly heard about the virtues of individual liberty but almost nothing about the importance of community or social solidarity, and of the obligations and attachments we have to each other. Even Republican figures who espouse relatively moderate policy prescriptions often sound like libertarians run amok.
This picture needs to be filled out, and there is a rich conservative tradition to turn to for inspiration. Included within that tradition is the thought of Edmund Burke, with its emphasis on the “little platoons” of civil society; the Catholic doctrines of subsidiarity and solidarity with the poor; and the ideas developed by evangelical social reformers of an earlier era such as, in England, William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury.
But a turn in this direction cannot be only rhetorical. In pointing to dangers of an expanding central government, Republicans can rightly cite not only the constraints it places on individual initiative but also its crowding-out of civil society and citizen engagement. Specifically, they might propose ways to protect the charitable sector from federal aggression. They might also work to reinforce the activities of civil-society groups by involving them centrally in the next stages of welfare reform, in a robust agenda to overhaul our prison system, and in a concerted effort to encourage civic and cultural assimilation of immigrants.
American society comprises more than private individuals on the one hand, government on the other. Republicans and conservatives can and should take their policy bearings from that crucial fact.
, the GOP can engage vital social issues forthrightly but in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating.
Addressing the issue of marriage and family is not optional; it is essential. Far from being a strictly private matter, the collapse of the marriage culture in America has profound public ramifications, affecting everything from welfare and education to crime, income inequality, social mobility, and the size of the state. Yet few public or political figures are even willing to acknowledge that this collapse is happening.
For various reasons, the issue of gay marriage is now front and center in the public consciousness. Republicans for the most part oppose same-sex marriage out of deference to traditional family structures. In large parts of America, and among the largest portion of a rising generation, this appears to be a losing battle. In the meantime, the fact remains that our marriage culture began to disintegrate long before a single court or a single state approved gay marriage. It is heterosexuals, not homosexuals, who have made a hash out of marriage, and when it comes to strengthening an institution in crisis, Republicans need to have something useful to offer. The advance of gay marriage does not release them from their responsibilities to help fortify that institution and speak out confidently on the full array of family-related issues. Republicans need to make their own inner peace with working with those who both support gay marriage and are committed to strengthening the institution of marriage.
Yes, the ability of government to shape attitudes and practices regarding family life is very limited. But a critical first step is to be clear and consistent about the importance of marriage itself—as the best institution ever devised when it comes to raising children, the single best path to a life out of poverty, and something that needs to be reinforced rather than undermined by society.
Other steps then follow: correcting the mistreatment of parents in our tax code by significantly increasing the child tax credit; eliminating various marriage penalties and harmful incentives for poor and for unwed mothers; evaluating state and local marriage-promotion programs and supporting those that work; informally encouraging Hollywood to help shape positive attitudes toward marriage and parenthood. There may be no single, easy solution, but that is not a reason for silence on the issue of strengthening and protecting the family.
, where appropriate, Republicans need to harness their policy views to the findings of science. This has been effectively done on the pro-life issue, with sonograms that reveal the humanity of a developing child. But the cause of scientific literacy was not aided during the recent primary season, when Michele Bachmann warned that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being “forced to have a government injection” to prevent the spread of the human papilloma virus, adding that some vaccines may cause “mental retardation.” Bachmann managed to combine ignorance about public health, indifference to cervical cancer, anti-government paranoia, and discredited conspiracy theories about vaccines into one censorious package.
The issue of climate disruption is far more complex, but can play a similar, discrediting role. There is a difference between a healthy skepticism toward fashionable liberal shibboleths and dogmatic resistance to accumulated evidence. Gregg Easterbrook, an environmental commentator who has a long record of opposing alarmism, put it this way: “All of the world’s major science academies have said they are convinced climate change is happening and that human action plays a role.”
To acknowledge climate disruption need hardly lead one to embrace Al Gore’s policy agenda. It is perfectly reasonable to doubt the merits of pushing for a global deal to cut carbon emissions—a deal that is almost surely beyond reach—and to argue instead for a focus on adaptation and investments in new and emerging technologies. Republicans could back an entrepreneurial approach to technical and scientific investment as opposed to the top-down approach of unwieldy government bureaucracies offering huge subsidies to favored companies such as Solyndra. (See above, under “corporate welfare.”)
Confronting climate change is important in and of itself. It is also important as a matter of epistemology, to show that Republicans are not, in fact, at war with the scientific method. Only then will Republicans have adequate standing to criticize junk science when it’s used as a tort weapon or as an obstacle to new energy technologies.
The agenda sketched above is neither comprehensive nor definitive, but is intended as a starting point for discussion. Its aim is to locate a means of broadening the appeal of the GOP without violating the party’s core principles of life and liberty. Such an approach is consistent with the traditional conservative hope of balancing what Burke called “the two principles of conservation and correction.”
What we have recommended is a series of such corrections, necessary for the task of conservation, and necessary for winning national elections and governing: the political prerequisites to any agenda of reform. These corrections will be the work of many hands, including governors, members of Congress, and policy entrepreneurs. It would also be helpful to create an institution, modeled after the DLC or the Centre for Social Justice in the United Kingdom, whose chief purpose would be to generate the ideas, the arguments, and the policy proposals essential to a movement aimed at winning power and governing effectively. This movement, right now, lacks a headquarters.
In the end, of course, success will also require the emergence of the right presidential candidate in 2016—in some respects the most sobering item in this entire exercise. In the arc of the GOP nomination contest in 2012—involving dozens of state Republican primaries, more than 20 debates, and tens of millions of dollars in ads—issues such as upward mobility, education, middle-class concerns, poverty, strong communities and safe streets, corporate welfare, the environment, cultural renewal, and immigration either were hardly mentioned or, in the case of immigration, were discussed in the most disaffecting way possible. There was more talk about electrified fences and self-deportation than there was about social and economic opportunity and the modernization of our governing institutions.
Any fair-minded survey of rising Republican leaders—the ranks contain, among others, Senators Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte, Representatives Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling, Governors Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Susana Martinez, and Scott Walker, as well as former governors such as Jeb Bush—suggests that the GOP possesses impressive political talent. Their challenge is both to refine and relaunch the Republican message, to propose policies that symbolize values and cultural understanding, to reconnect with a middle America that looks different than it once did, and to confront old attitudes, not from time to time, but every day.
The challenge for primary voters, party activists, and party leaders is different: to create the conditions that will give this talented field the intellectual support and leeway to oppose outworn or extreme ideas within their own coalition and to produce an agenda relevant to our time.