Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s “Sam’s Club Republicans” article in the Weekly Standard is a must read for anyone already thinking about the direction of the GOP in the post-Bush era. The “cut their pay and send them home” crowd is not going to be happy with Douthat and Salam’s suggestions, but the two authors identify what I think is the greatest threat to maintaining the GOP’s electoral viability–economic insecurity in the middle and lower classes.
Salam wrote earlier this year about Sam’s Club Republicans. What he and Douthat grasp, which many GOP loyalists (and probably the Bush administration) do not, is that the party’s new base is not “pro-growth” activists or corporate CEOs, but rather middle- and working-class social conservatives, usually white and male. These voters gave the president a supermajority in the last election because of his dedication to the war in Iraq and his defending of traditional morality (manifested last year in the gay marriage battle). These very same voters, Douthat and Salam argue, are less enamored with Friedmanesque economic policy, especially those policies that would, in the short term at least, cause economic insecurity. Social security reform and amnesty for documented workers are just two issues where the party’s working class base is at odds with its shareholder leadership. The party’s base, Douthat and Salam say, is “surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement.” Somewhere, Larry Kudlow just supressed a gag reflex.
Alienating this base, despite their ideological “unorthodoxy,” would be disaster for the GOP. Yet, that is precisely what is happening these days, from the war (where failure is just as bad as weakness) to economics (Bush’s cosiness with big business). The GOP needs to remain connected with this base, and not in the Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?) manipulative sense. To be quite honest, I find myself in sympathy with many of Douthat and Salam’s Sam’s Club Republican proposals. I think there is much wisdom in their pro-big family tax proposals, because after all demographics is the future. Their other ideas have merit at least in the sense of triangulation. As Bill Clinton pre-empted much of the Republican Revolution by adopting its most popular ideas as his own, the GOP may want to get itself on the side of health care and social security reform just to outflank any bad ideas coming from the other side.
The GOP doesn’t like to talk about class. Anyone who talks about the rising gap between “the haves” and “the have nots” is immediately cut off with charges of “class warfare!” I have always believed this is a mistake, as it sends anyone who wants to talk about class into the other camp, so I’m glad Douthat and Salam have brought up the division between Sam’s Club and county club Republicans. A wise post-Bush GOP operative can, like Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, jumpstart a career by recognizing this gap and making sure it remains bridged.