Republicans Need to Solve Middle Class Problems

Republicans needs to be seen as solving middle-class Americans’ problems or they will lose again.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers questions at an education forum in Londonderry, New Hampshire, August 19
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers questions at an education forum in Londonderry, New Hampshire, August 19 (Michael Vadon)

Ramesh Ponnuru, a reform-minded conservative, makes the point in Politico today that the Atlantic Sentinel has been hammering home for the last couple of months: America’s Republicans need to convince the middle class they have its best interest at heart or they will lose the presidential election — again.

Ponnuru points out that even if Americans are becoming more liberal on social issues like gay marriage, their views on the role of government have barely changed since the turn of the century. In 1999, Americans who said government regulation was needed to protect the public interest slightly outnumbered those who feared it did more harm than good. Last year, the two were tied. A majority of Americans also still thinks the federal government is trying to do too much.

These numbers leave open the question of why, if the public isn’t moving ideologically left, it has nonetheless tilted Democratic in presidential elections.

Ponnuru believes it’s because many Americans in the middle don’t think the conservative economic agenda has anything to offer them.

They may agree there is too much regulation or dislike the Democrats’ health reforms. “But they also worry about the cost of college or health care or child care,” writes Ponnuru, and it seems to them Republicans are more interested in lowering taxes for the wealthy and helping big business.

53 percent of voters told pollsters in 2012 they thought Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, would “favor the rich.” He got 47 percent support in the election.

The Atlantic Sentinel argued last month that Republicans need to be the party of the middle class. Americans with college, but not a postgraduate, degrees and household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 per year are the country’s true swing vote. They backed Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as well as Democrat Bill Clinton. In 2006, 49 percent of them supported Democrats in the midterm elections. Two years later, 50 percent voted for Barack Obama against 48 percent for John McCain. In last year’s congressional elections, support for Republicans among these voters had risen to 54 percent.

Like Ponnuru, this website argued that middle-income voters often decide less based on the basis of partisan affiliation whom to vote for than according to bread-and-butter issues.

Whether it is the lack of job security, unaffordable higher education, a health care system that is similarly more expensive than it needs to be or the absence of real wage growth, the defining question of the next election will likely be how to make life a little easier for those tens of millions of Americans who identify as middle class.

Republicans’ association with big business isn’t the worst thing, according to Ponnuru. The party succeeded in the past by making the case that its policies directly benefited everyday Americans.

In the early 1980s, for example, Republicans said they would end gas lines, raise people’s take-home pay and make streets safer from crime. It has been a long time since Republicans have made a similar offer. It has been a long time since they have presented themselves as problem solvers.

The worst thing Republicans could do as they try to take back the White House in 2016 is nominate a candidate from the populist or religious right who obsesses over immigration and marriage equality at the expense of middle-class concerns.

The Atlantic Sentinel reported in July that some presidential hopefuls are ready to move on from divisive social issues. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are talking about how to raise social mobility. They have smart, concrete policies for improving education. Both are relaxed about America’s changing demographics and are developing a conservative agenda that is at home in the twenty-first century.

Others, like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker, are fighting yesterday’s battles over gay marriage and union rights. Theirs is not the way forward.

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