alien & sedition.
Monday, July 16, 2007
  "Lower-Middle Reformism" and the Battle for the Midwest

Frank Luntz, self-exiled in LA, pops up to tell Republicans that they should run in 2008 as the party of optimism and reform. Take a moment to stop laughing, and then read on, because there's a worthwhile nugget of discussable material in his piece (plus it'll make you feel good). Note these points:
A GOP victory is not absolutely out of the question, of course, but getting there would take a forward-looking agenda, unparalleled message discipline, a strict focus on the millions of independent voters, an innovative candidate and campaign and a lot of luck....

To be perfectly blunt, no Republican can win the White House without winning Ohio. Although readers of this column would no doubt like to see and hear the presidential nominees up close, the reality is that California, at least when it comes to elections, is as blue as the Pacific. A successful Republican candidate in Ohio will have learned how to articulate a culturally conservative message fused with government accountability and economic opportunity specifically tailored to voters in the industrial heartland. Without the support of the anxious working class, Ohio will also turn deep blue. And so will the United States.
Daniel Larison and Ross Douthat are quick to jump on this, because they've spent a good deal of time arguing precisely this sort of thing (despite Jonah Goldberg's painfully embarassing attempt to condescend to a group of writers who are 1) smarter and 2) no younger than he). As Larison once put the basic argument:
[S]mall-government conservatism doesn’t sell and “strong government” conservatism does... I don’t like it, but it is true. Ceteris paribus, a GOP that does not attempt to co-opt or develop its own answer for ”lower-middle reformism” or populism is a GOP that is much more likely to lose in a nationwide contest with a party that has started turning to precisely that kind of politics. It will in all likelihood lose the presidential race if it does not address this weakness and instead continues to trot out the old “tax cuts and deregulation” mantra.
Larison now points out that the Republican candidates best positioned to carry a "lower-middle reformist" message ("Huckabee, The Other Thompson, Hunter") are stuck in the second tier of presidential contenders, while the frontrunners seem unable to learn the lesson of how to talk about economics. If Luntz is right, then the Republicans are getting the geography all wrong:
Giuliani and McCain poll better in named match-ups with Democratic contenders than the other two “leading” candidates, but on trade and economic policy they have nothing to offer Ohio, Pennsylvania and other Midwestern states. Leave aside their foreign policy craziness for a moment, and remember (if you somehow had forgotten) that these two are the strongest pro-immigration advocates in the field. That will not, already does not, play well with Republican voters, and it likely will not play very well with the electorate in Ohio, either. Needless to say, the state that went for Bush in ‘04 at least partly thanks to the gay “marriage” ban referendum is not going to be a good fit for Giuliani.

The Republicans need to be able to compete in Ohio and Midwestern states like Ohio, and they appear to be gearing up to nominate a candidate that will make them relatively more competitive in either the South (Fred), California (McCain), the Northeast (Giuliani) or nowhere in particular (Romney). They have apparently learned nothing from the close call in 2004 and the repudiation of 2006.
A very important point here is the different direction the parties are heading in when it comes to economic rhetoric. It's not just the candidates, it's the entire conservative message apparatus, which seems determined to ignore what Larison calls the difference between "economic indicators" and "political reality," as witnessed by Bill Kristol's latest Kudlow-esque "everything is fine, stop whining about he economy" piece in the Weekly Standard. Democrats, meanwhile, are finally taking just the opposite tack, noting that while the numbers may look good, the lived experience of the American economy these days is one of insecurity and doubt. Pundits will surely warn the Democrats away from their new populism, but Democrats are starting to understand the economy as Americans do, not as Beltway economists do, and that's going to give them a huge advantage next fall.

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Nice post. It jives with what we've recently talked about. And it just goes to show how really, incredibly out of touch the Republican elites are.
Right there with you. Goes double in my district.
Yes, fortunately Republicans appear to be deaf to the rumblings of economic discontent. It feels like Bush I all over again (but with a more authoritarian face).

I do wonder, though, how John Edwards' poverty message will play down the line. It depends on how the economy changes between now and fall 2008. But also there may be a rhetorical problem with Edwards' message: do people want to hear the word 'poverty' over and over again?

The reason politicians talk so much about the middle class is because most people think they're in it (including politicians). I doubt too many people would willingly describe themselves as 'poor.'

We shall see how that rhetoric - which of course is separate from the policy prescriptions - resonates.
Vernon -- I suspect you're right. I'm glad a major candidate is talking about poverty, but message-wise I'm not sure it's quite the right thing. The issue is more insecurity, which ranges across not just the poor but the working- and middle- classes. Better to build an economic message around an inclusive experience rather than one people want to avoid thinking about. That may sound dismissive of the importance of poverty as an issue, but good social insurance programs would benefit the poor as much as - or more than - anyone else, so we might as well get the politics right.
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