Is the pro-middle class conservative project already doomed?

Credit: Erik Brynjolfsson

Credit: Erik Brynjolfsson

First a story: Not so long ago, I chatted with a top Senate GOP staffer who had seen me mentioned in a Politico story about the divide between conservative wonks and Republican politicians. (As reporter Jonathan Martin put it, “Conservative thinkers are increasingly agitated that, four months after a second straight presidential drubbing, GOP officeholders are not taking bold steps to bring a 1980s-style Republican platform into the 21st century.”)

Here’s roughly what the staffer told me: “It’s not that we don’t know about your ideas or understand them. We just don’t think they’re any good.”

Which brings me to Jonathan Chait’s mini-profile of Josh Barro in The Atlantic. While Barro “believes American politics needs a party that can advocate compassionate, market-oriented alternatives to Democratic policies,” the Bloomberg columnist doubts the GOP is anywhere close to being that alternative. The Republican Party isn’t ready for reform. Folks such as David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, and me are kidding ourselves. Barro has concluded the “pro–middle class conservative project is doomed.”

I’ve never met Barro, though once we debated on the BBC about, of all things, the viability of the US government minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin to avoid default. I read his stuff, however, several time a week. And given the anecdote at the start of this post, I certainly understand his attitude. The House GOP’s two big ideas — balancing the budget and stripping the Fed of its employment mandate — aren’t huge confidence builders, either.

But do I agree with Barro’s gloomy, fatalistic assessment? Or to frame it another way: Will the 2016 Republican presidential nominee — or even any top candidates — offer anything different than the 2012ers —  other than more middle-class friendly messaging? I focus on the presidential candidate because it’s going to take a presidential candidate to really change the conversation among Washington Republicans. (And, of course, Democrats are also encouraged to adopt my ideas on tax, education, finance, and entitlement reform!)

When I consider the possible pool of GOP candidates — including Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul,  Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio — I see some politicians who might understand the economic challenges of today are not the same as those of the 1980s and require timeless principles applied in a timely and relevant way. And I see some who might not.

It could well be that the 2016 GOP nominee’s big ideas will be disappointingly familiar: a flat tax, balanced budget amendment, cutting debt ASAP, replacing everything President Obama passed with only vaguely sketched alternatives. Then again, the agenda might actually propose on-point ways government can help middle- and lower-income Americans — sometimes by leaning in, sometimes leaning back — create a prosperous, secure future in an rapidly evolving IT economy. I  think it will probably be the latter scenario, but I wouldn’t bet too much on it.

47 thoughts on “Is the pro-middle class conservative project already doomed?

  1. Here’s a big idea: Admit that everything the federal government does outside the limits of the Constitution is counterproductive and begin repealing everything beyond the original scope of government.

    The debate between direct government control and direct government control premised on “market forces” is really an argument taking place within the same statist community. Both groups think they know how to use the powers of coercion to socially engineer a better country. That’s not an indefensible philosophy. But I think conservatives would do better to push for liberty.

    • let’s get started with that Repeal Medicare and Social Security meme right now. i predict well-deserved electoral success for your Limbaugh\Jones ticket in 2016.

      • Medicare yes, and Medicaid, but not SSA. Make SSA investment based and cut it from the general budget, holding Congress’s feet to the fire to pay its IOUs back into the system. Won’t have a problem making wealthy earners contribute to that payback as long as government is cut back (not just rate of growth, but real cuts – abolish Homeland Security, Dept. of Education, anything else possible) with tax simplification and reduction.

    • Here’s an idea. Why don’t Republicans implement this “anti-statist” agenda in a smaller country. Then, when it slides quietly into the sea never to be heard of again, you guys can sit in a corner and think about what you’ve done.

    • Do you understand that the statism you decry is the only reason things work? The electrical grid, roads, clean water, never mind the Internet, these things all exist because the state exists and enables the development/upkeep of cool things.

      • You’re deliberately obfuscating the meaning of the word ‘state’ in this context. There is a difference between ‘state’ and ‘community’ or ‘municipality’ and ‘state’ and ‘government’. You imply water purification, for example, is the result of some master plan devised by Platonic philosopher kings looking down from on high in Washington DC. That isn’t the case. Such things are accomplished locally, not nationally.

        Also note the electrical grid was (and is) implemented by the private sector, not national or state governments–although national and state governments hold legislative and regulatory authority. And the Internet? The Internet was not invented by Al Gore. Al Gore is an arrogant, narcissistic idiot. He lied to you.

        • Oh good grief. Al Gore never said he invented the internet. Do some actual research rather than just spouting off right wing memes! He never said it, but yet everyone on the right just “knows” that he did.

          And, BTW, the internet was very much a creation of the federal government. Look up ARPANET sometime and educate yourself.

          Also….the electrical grid was implemented by the private sector?!?! You’re an idiot. Who do you think built the Hoover Dam? Who established the Tennessee Valley Authority? Who do you think put up the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams right here in my home state of Washington?

          It’s amazing to me how so many of you conservatives can be so secure in your knowledge of things that are factually wrong. Bobby Jindal had it exactly right when he called out his own party as “the stupid party”.

          • I was kidding about Al Gore, but he has implied he played a key role in its development. He said, ‘I took the initiative in creating the Internet.’ Semantically, he was taking credit while allowing himself some room for maneuver.

            Regarding the TVA, Hoover Dam, etc. Yes, those were federal projects but the scope of those projects was interstate, and vast. However, the vast, overwhelming amount of infrastructure development has been undertaken by private industry, and remains so to this day. To claim otherwise is disingenuous at best, an outright lie at worst.

            Calling me stupid discredits yourself, lightweight. Socialism, that promised Utopia so many of you on the Left dream about, is a fool’s dream. All socialism is good for are gulags, tyrannical governments, and economic stagnation. I’m guessing you like that ‘tyrannical government’ part. Nothing makes people like me shut up like a jackboot in the face.

            As an aside, why is there still a TVA, anyway?

  2. I would love to hear more about these alternative ideas that the “conservative wonks” have. A flat tax and cutting debt ASAP sound pretty good to me. That said, I am open to different ideas but I worry that they would just be of the variety of being “better tax collectors for welfare state.”

    • Does a flat tax really sound good if the GOP is trying to increase its appeal to middle class voters and shed its image as being the party of the rich? A flat tax would would reduce the tax burden on wealthier Americans while increasing it on lower income people.

      • “A flat tax would would reduce the tax burden on wealthier Americans while increasing it on lower income people.”

        …um…(calculating the numbers on my middle-class income) no.

        • Well, technically he is correct, the lower incomes usually don’t pay anything and actually get money back regardless of whether they paid anything in, so yes I guess their tax liability would go up and they would actually have to write a check in April.

          • Flat tax should be progressive, one percent to a max 20, but supported by a livable wage. Amnesty will further erode earning wages (and really, if passed, will make all arguments moot because we are then no different from China) and if we want ALL wage earners with skin in the game, they need to be paid enough to feel the pain of big government.

          • I think we should have an inverted tax. IE a 90% income tax on all incomes $1000 or less, 30% on all incomes between 1-65K, 10% on incomes between 65K-95K, a 5% tax on all incomes over 95K. You might actually get more revenue that way, as there are far fewer people with incomes over 95K than their are people with incomes between 1k and 95K. And also, as people realize they will be keeping more money the more they make, they will be killing themselves to get into a higher bracket. Thus more money for the welfare state… Which will need to be dismantled as people realize that they don’t need it.

            But I wouldn’t mind a 15%-25% flat tax (including social security medicare/medicaid). Maybe a second tax rate at 28% TOPS… Enough class warfare b.s.

          • Jaimo, two items:

            1) every ‘flat tax’ proposal I’ve seen includes a large personal + per-family member deduction, so the lowest incomes would still play no tax.

            2) As a matter of philosophy, I think every dollar of income should be taxed, even if at a di minimus rate of 1%. A stable tax code should be constructed so that everyone has skin in the game.

    • One can look at “Taxes and the Family” over at National Affairs where Robert Stein offers a fundamental tax reform geared towards an expanded child tax credit for both income and payroll taxes, the work at this blog and by people such as Luigi Zingales at breaking up the big banks, heck, just read “Grand New Party” by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, even though the book is now 7 years old its ideas are still a lot of the core of the more reformist wing of the conservative movement.

  3. Can we add Michael Pence to the list of potential candidates?
    You are right about who we need, but we need to get him (or her) through the primaries.

  4. I haven’t seen a new idea of consequence from conservatives in MANY years. As I told a group of extremely conservative friends that were lamenting losing independents and the middle class after the election, maybe if you want to get them back, maybe you should come up with policies that directly HELP them. Conservative policies revolve around abstract ways to “help” the middle class (trickle down economics, getting “government off your backs”) that have either been proven failures of policy or don’t do ANYTHING for how people live day to day. NOTHING the new faces of the party have proposed would change that dynamic in the party and there have been NO alternatives suggested that would address the pressing issues of the day. The party continues to go further and further to the right as they purge those that don’t want to move further right from the party. Can this trend change in two years when the 2016 presidential race heats up? Doubtful.

    • Read some of the Federalist Papers. The purpose of a sound federal government isn’t to rob Peter to pay Paul, but to safeguard the natural rights of the citizens. That we think otherwise, (the purpose of Washington is to “…come up with policies that directly HELP [the middle class]“) show how far we’ve fallen away from our foundational principles toward a ‘vending machine’ state that cannot be sustained.

    • You employing false premises. Trickle-down works. So does getting the government off people’s backs. It’s an old idea: if the private sector is allowed to flourish; that is, if it isn’t burdened by over-taxation or regulatory constraints, then the economy will grow and more wealth is created. The more wealth that is created, the greater the demand for goods and services, thus causing more jobs to be created–including jobs for poor people, making them un-poor people–should they choose to take advantage of those increased opportunities.

      The best way to help people is to exercise as little governmental control over their lives as is practicable. We call this minimal control ‘freedom’. The more ‘freedom’ people enjoy (I know the term is alien to you, hence the scare quotes), the greater the prosperity that results.

      The federal government is not constitutionally designed to help people. It’s designed to protect their rights and freedoms. With those rights and freedoms, they can help themselves.

      • You said if the economy isn’t regulated, then the economy will grow and “more wealth will be created”.

        Who gets the wealth?

        The wealth existing by itself won’t magically create demand. It has to exist in the hands of enough different people who buy enough things to generate enough demand that the economic entity in question is losing more money by not meeting it than hiring would cost them.

        Trickle down doesn’t work because, while it does do a great job of creating wealth, that wealth isn’t distributed widely enough to create significant demand. One person with a million dollar slush fund will not generate nearly as much demand as a hundred thousand people with 10 dollars to spend on whatever.

        • Yeah, those millions of people better enjoy that 10 bucks, and stretch it out enough to buy a few candy bars and a soda and maybe–just maybe–they’ll have enough left over for a bag of chips. And while they’re at it, they can offer up a prayer to the gods of big government who made that bag of chips possible.

          People with money invest their capital in businesses. These businesses in turn furnish goods and services and create jobs. Socialist superstates, which are not (contrary to liberal opinion) ran by all-knowing Platonic Philosopher Kings, take money from people and in turn pay off other people in order to further and maintain their power. They rationalize their lust for power by claiming they’re taking the wealth of others in the name of social justice.

          Socialism and its big gulag-loving brother communism are the most pernicious lies ever foisted off on humanity. Those who promote it are either dupes or power-hungry tyrants. There is no middle ground.

          • Well, yeah, a hundred thousand candy bars and sodas (or, if you’d care to be more charitable to the argument, loaves of bread or packages of meat) does create more demand and drive more business than one super fancy car. Quality of life is not the same as demand, remember. Our goal here is to increase hiring, which will in turn increase quality of life later.

            Regarding your point about investment, it’s kind of a gross oversimplification (which I assume you already know and don’t need me to explain to you), and it’s beside the point anyways since we’re talking about demand generation.

            I am going to very pointedly ignore your statements about socialism because I’m pretty sure that you actually know better. Sounds good rhetorically but I’m not here for that kind of fight, sorry. Let’s focus on demand.

          • No, my remarks about socialism/communism are directly on point. That’s the choice. If governmental takeover or intrusions into the private sector has proved anything, it’s that big government intrusion creates nothing but economic stagnation and mass misery. No social justice there unless ‘social justice’ mean making everyone equally miserable–except, of course, for the inner circles of the ruling elites who are running that vast soul-destroying, spirit-crushing machine.

            No country on earth can guarantee equality of economic outcome. Those that try invariably devolve into murderous dictatorships or implode into historically irrelevant mediocrities, fading away just as once-great countries like Britain and France are fading away.

            Let people be free. Leave them alone to succeed or not on their own merits, and know that freedom also means the freedom to fail.

            It’s better to be free than safe.

          • OK, then you don’t know better. Not my problem. Point is, I thought we were talking about demand here? I’ll repeat myself:

            “Well, yeah, a hundred thousand candy bars and sodas (or, if you’d care to be more charitable to the argument, loaves of bread or packages of meat) does create more demand and drive more business than one super fancy car. Quality of life is not the same as demand, remember. Our goal here is to increase hiring, which will in turn increase quality of life later.”

  5. “Then again, the agenda might actually propose on-point ways government can help middle- and lower-income Americans — sometimes by leaning in, sometimes leaning back — create a prosperous, secure future in an rapidly evolving IT economy. I think it will probably be the latter scenario, but I wouldn’t bet too much on it.”

    Ha. I’ll take a 100-1 bet against, unlimited wager. Of course, it doesn’t count as new or on-point when the proposals just employ new, unique policy methods to disguise the now classic American conservative goals of using government power to enrich the wealthy, crush labor protections, bargaining power, and the middle class generally, and attempts to legislate social values back to the good old days of rich white male protestant privilege over any poor people, women, darkies, or heathens who dare get too uppity.

    • Matt, just spitballing here but I’m guessing you’re a product of one of those Marxist seminaries we used to call ‘universities’. Do you actually know any conservatives? I’m guessing not. But here’s a clue: your professors lied to you.

      We’re not racists. Most of us practice one sort of religion or another, but so do many self-identified liberals. Further, if you hadn’t noticed, many Republican elected officials are women on both state and national levels. Minorities are also well-represented in the Republican Party, and many of them have faced the most virulent racism imaginable since they’ve chosen to leave the Democratic plantation.

      So stop believing your own propaganda. People who oppose your viewpoint are not two-dimensional cartoons. By resorting to insults and denigration, you excuse yourself from defending your ideas in reasoned debate because, according to you and yours, we’re all knuckle-dragging racists morally unworthy of debate. What that means is you can’t rely solely on undergraduate cliches to get you through the day. You would actually have to support your beliefs with facts, logic, evidence, and I frankly don’t think you and yours are up for it.

  6. It appears to me the strategy of the GOP is to only be just to the right of the progressives. As the left moved further left the GOP assumed that would give them more of the middle. Unfortunately when the left and middle now believe ‘help’ means taking a dollar out of someone else’s pocket and sending it to them the message of smaller GIVERnment falls apart. The GOP and Conservatives will make a come back post bankruptcy. The giveaways are not sustainable; ponzi schemes always end poorly.

  7. You don’t need “new” ideas. You need someone who can articulate the “old” ideas well. Keeping taxes low and getting govt out of our lives is an old idea, but an idea that always works when tried. “New” ideas like Obamacare are disasters.

    • Agreed, Jambu. The GOP’s fatal flaw is communication. Can’t anyone once say “I’m gonna let you middle-class folks keep more of your hard-earned money and send your kids to whatever school you want”? How about “Next year, you can buy your kids a new computer or send a little more cash to someone in your family who’s struggling or put a little more away for a new kitchen instead of throwing it down a rathole like Solyndra.” Anyone?

      I know James P is much smarter than I am, but all I see here is “we need to give more stuff away to buy votes.” So I guess I’m not getting it.

  8. The author wrote, “Then again, the agenda might actually propose on-point ways government can help middle- and lower-income Americans — sometimes by leaning in, sometimes leaning back — create a prosperous, secure future in an rapidly evolving IT economy.”

    I note, too, that Mr. Pethokoukis used the word ‘compassionate’ at least once, and was soundly dismissive of ideas such as the flat tax, debt reduction, et al.

    In Great Britain, the Tories win elections by essentially selling themselves as the better managers of the welfare state. What the author is advocating is, hey, you know, maybe that’s not such a bad model for an opposition party.

    Any conservative would argue yes, it is a bad model. It’s the worst model possible. For one thing, you’re accepting the underlying premises of the Left as true, which they aren’t. For another, you’re offering voters the choice between socialism and socialism lite–a better managed socialism that’s all about leaning in and stuff. Because middle class. Because IT economy. Because social justice.

    Become a Democrat, please. You can be one of those influential moderate Blue Dog Democrats who…wait. Sorry, never mind.

  9. You want to help the middle class? Give them the same “benefits” you give those of the poorer classes. When I see fat chicks buying $350 dollars worth of crap food at the Wal-Mart, with four kids in tow, I think – damn! I wouldn’t mind $350 bucks to supplement MY families table. EBT at gas stations…hell – why not me too? Because I actually work for a living, pay taxes, own property, pay our way, I can’t get me and mines a handout? Gimme, gimme, gimme…there, is that adapting better to the world in which we live? Because that’s how the other side is winning elections and getting over.

  10. “The Republican Party isn’t ready for reform. Folks such as David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, and me are kidding ourselves. Barro has concluded the “pro–middle class conservative project is doomed.”

    These guys ar liberal squishes and only want to further water down what little conservatism exists with the current Repub leadership. Middle and lower class conservatives want no part of this compassionate baloney these squishes and the leadership are selling and is the one of two reasons Romney failed (the second being Obama’s use if IRS intimidation to suppress conservative votes). Cut government, cut handouts and bailouts, support a mandatory liveable wage, and let people be responsible for their choices. Period. If immigration reform passes, the Republican Party is doomed and Obama can cement his legacy of bringing one-party Marxism to America.

  11. There is still some popularity for conservative ideas, but they have to be presented in a more positive light, and not as “the Party of No”. For example, the Romney campaign touted its friendliness toward small-business owners, but they represent a minority of American voters. When the opposing party is talking about taxing the rich to give away free stuff, the way to counter that is by telling middle-class Americans who work for someone else that taxing their employers less leaves them more money for their own salaries.

    Too many conservatives have taken extreme positions on side issues which have been exploited by Democrats, such as abortion. I am pro-life, but having Republican candidates say that a rape victim should not be allowed an abortion is political suicide. They SHOULD say that abortion should ONLY be allowed in cases of rape, incest, or if the pregnancy is dangerous to the life of the mother, which represent a small percentage of abortions. Such a position has 60%+ support among the American people, and would save lots of babies. But a “purist” position which would deny a rape victim an abortion turns off many women, particularly in urban areas, who might fear being raped and having to endure nine months of carrying her attacker’s child.

    • ‘Extreme position on abortion’? If you want an extreme position on abortion, look to President Obama, who believes abortion is perfectly fine, thanks, right up to the last moment of the third trimester, just prior to birth and as long as the baby’s head is still geographically located within the birth canal. Not even the oh-so-liberal Europeans go along with that. They view it as infanticide. I know, hard to believe the Europeans actually have limits on abortion since they’re so keen on euthanasia, but there it is.

      Few conservatives advocate the ‘purist’ position you claim, which makes most of your argument a strawman. For one thing, few conservatives believe the state should be able to coerce a victim of rape or incest to carry a child to term against her will.

      All that said, Roe v. Wade is bad law. Conservatives prefer a federalist approach, each state to its own. If Californians, for example, want to follow the murderous Peter Singer model, where the old and infirm and babies are classified as ‘unpersons’, then so be it, just don’t force another state to sanction such awful practices. That would be a genuine choice.

    • “…the way to counter that is by telling middle-class Americans who work for someone else that taxing their employers less leaves them more money for their own salaries….”

      Actually that’s the way to get laughed right out of the room. Most voters may not be expert in economic theory, but they know their bosses and their companies, and they know that if their companies find themselves with more money none of their bosses will think “Goodie! Now we can pay our employees more!” They know that, instead, that money will go straight into yet more lavish executive salaries and bonuses, share buy-backs and/or dividends for shareholders, one-time costs of more “reorganization” (i.e., layoffs) and the purchase of more automation to enable it, or disappear offshore into “stateless” (and thus taxless) subsidiaries. The middle class knows that corporations are not their friends. You go ahead and just try to explain to them how trickle-down benefits them. They’ll look at you, and rightly, like you’re nuts.

      • Putting the lie to a stereotype, most employers are not Monopoly board cartoons. Employers, to stay competitive, offer workers wages and benefits in accordance with that end. The goal of business is to make profits; that is, create wealth. Wealth creation, in turn, causes the creation of jobs.

        Those middle-class people you’re talking about? Many of them work for corporations. In that sense, they are the corporations. Of course, corporations are businesses. They’re about producing goods and services in order to make money.

        I prefer profit-seeking corporations to dictatorships, myself. Corporate motivations are straightforward, neither good nor evil. Dictatorships, on the other hand, those authoritarian socialist superstates you and yours seem to favor, are decidedly, definitively malevolent however they present themselves.

        Government is not the engine of economic growth. Pretending it is does not make it so.

        By the way, whatever happened to those shovel-ready jobs Obama promised? If memory serves, he laughed about it when asked about it a few years later. No one else did.

  12. Jimmy P has been on his way to Democrat for quite a while. I’m not sure why Rush still quotes him other than his pre-show research isn’t what it once was. Mark Levin still quotes him but only to note that he disagrees with him.

    Jimmy P loves him some Ben Bernanke and the Fed so any platform that touches them is doomed from the start.

  13. I actually agree with the GOP staffer. The problem with conservatism is not the GOP’s refusal to take up and run with conservative ideas. It’s that intellectual conservatism is largely exhausted. It has not had a truly new idea in 30 years. Conservatism needs to look to itself and figure out why it is has no broad popular appeal. It has no imaginative or creative applications of its core principles to offer. Certainly no big ones. James mentions the retread Republican program, but he doesn’t name a single thing that he, or Salam, or Douthat, or Ponnuru, or Barro has offered. The conservative intellectual elite needs to stop blaming the GOP for the disorder of American politics and get to work.

  14. “believes American politics needs a party that can advocate compassionate, market-oriented alternatives to Democratic policies“…

    That is so stupid that it defies any rational basis to spin it…

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