For American conservatives to return to the White House in 2016, they must stop running up an escalator that is moving down
Wakes are not only for rainy days. The weather outside was glorious in that New England fall way, but the mood inside a room in Yale’s Linsly-Chittenden Hall was a touch funereal. We were a bunch of rightwingers there for a conference on the future of conservatism but, to quite a few of those attending, the past seemed altogether more promising.
The timing was not the best. Just a few days before, the ill-conceived and unpopular effort by congressional Republicans to defund Obamacare, a ploy that made the charge of the Light Brigade look well thought-out, had collapsed in an eminently predictable fiasco. This stoked fears that the 2014 midterm elections were now doomed to end in disaster. Always implausible hopes of retaking the Senate looked delusional and even GOP control of the House of Representatives appeared to be at risk.
But not long after, Republican hopes began to rise. The end of the shutdown left the Obamacare website, launched a week or two earlier amid general derision, alone in the coconut shy. As I write, healthcare.gov is a gift that is still giving. Obama’s approval ratings have sunk below 40 per cent.
But the site’s issues are being ironed out, and with the help of supportive media, will be reclassified as teething problems to be rapidly forgotten. Nevertheless, there is a decent chance that lingering recollections of the cack-handed roll-out will poison the way in which many voters will still be viewing Obama’s signature legislation when the mid-term elections come round next November. That might give the GOP a helping hand then, but the idea that this will also be enough to propel a Republican into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the 2016 elections is a stretch.
That said, Obamacare — never a particularly popular plan — may give Republicans something they can exploit in their campaign to retake the White House. The Obama administration shies away from the word, but the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is redistributionist, not only in the narrow sense (higher taxes on the wealthy), but in its broader operation: it directly or indirectly transfers healthcare resources away from a majority of Americans and reallocates them to the much smaller number previously shut out of the system. Crudely understood, there will be more losers than winners.
Simply undertaking to repeal Obamacare will not be enough to do the trick. The system being transformed by the ACA may have been better than usually understood in the UK, but it was nonetheless restrictive, bureaucratic and expensive and, thanks to the way it was often linked to employment, alarmingly tenuous to the millions of Americans who worry how secure their jobs really are. If Obamacare is to go, the GOP will have to explain what it will put in its place. Journalists and think-tank denizens on the Right have been offering up their suggestions for a while, but as two of the most recent to do so, Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Yuwal Levin, the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed in a November article in the Wall Street Journal, congressional Republicans have “with a few honourable exceptions” failed to join in.
That’s a problem. Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and something of a Republican star, warns that the GOP cannot just be the “party of no”. Maybe, but to attempt to define what it is for is, for the Republican politician who dares to try, dangerous ground indeed.
To start with, it will involve recognising that there is rather less remaining of the America that elected Ronald Reagan than many Republicans seem prepared to accept. The US population has ballooned by more than 90 million since 1980. It has changed in ways that reflect more than the passing of the years. Usefully didactic memories of the 1970s have faded. Recollections of the Lehman collapse are all too fresh. New generations have reached voting age after a lifetime immersed in the soft-left certainties of the American education system. Meanwhile, stagnating household incomes and what look like permanently higher levels of unemployment or underemployment threaten to chip away at support for America’s free market(ish) model. Democrat Bill de Blasio’s success in winning the mayoralty of New York City was (mostly) a Gotham thing, but obvious public concern over rising inequality — the Occupy movement was an early harbinger — signals a coming shift in the ideological landscape that will not help the Republicans one bit.
Above all, decades of mass immigration have transformed the country’s ethnic, cultural and political make-up in ways that pose an enormous challenge to the GOP. It says something that if the America of 2012 had had the demographics of 1980, Mitt Romney would have won by a wider margin than did Ronald Reagan back then.
What to do? To begin with the conventional wisdom is that Republicans need to scale back their opposition (much of it driven by the Right) to current efforts to “regularise” the position of the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants now thought to be present in the country. The argument — made with varying degrees of enthusiasm and cynicism both by the party establishment and erstwhile Tea Party darlings such as freshman Florida senator (and possible presidential candidate) Marco Rubio — is that an anti-immigration stance makes it easy for the GOP’s opponents to caricature the Republicans as a “white” party hostile to minorities. With Democrats and the media trumpeting just that tune, it’s an argument that has some weight.
Throw in some of the more inflammatory talk sometimes heard from the Tea Party and other sections of the “nativist” Right, as well as the clumsy language of Republicans often tone-deaf to ethnic sensitivities (Mitt Romney’s 2012 reference to “self-deportation” for one) and it’s easy to understand why the Republican share of the growing Latino vote fell from some 40 per cent in 2004 to 27 per cent in 2012 (Asian-Americans were even less enthusiastic: only 26 per cent voted for Romney). That minorities are more sceptical about immigration than often assumed only reinforces the point that what matters is not the policy itself, but the message that it is believed to deliver.
Yet the electoral mathematics will deteriorate still further if anti-immigration Republican congressmen who, for now, are holding the line, agree to an amnesty for illegals. For all the talk about Latinos’ attachment to enterprise and family values (more nuanced than the stereotype would suggest), their votes will tilt heavily Democratic for decades, just as did those of the Italian-Americans with whom they are so often compared. The same is true of the other immigrant groups now reshaping America, a disturbing prospect for the GOP given that the country is accepting something like one million new legal immigrants a year. That’s an inflow that the Democrats have every reason to welcome, but there is little sign that many Republicans will be prepared to stand in the way of those arriving legally, quite possibly even if that total is — as is also being proposed — significantly bumped up. The idea of the nation of immigrants has an emotional appeal that stretches across America’s ideological divide. More prosaically, there is also a bipartisan understanding that business donors appreciate the cheaper workers and increased demand that immigration brings in its wake.
Republicans are thus running up an escalator that is moving down. Resisting amnesty will slow the pace somewhat, but the longer-term trend is clear: to win, the party will have to win over more minority voters. Quite how to do so remains a mystery. The greater number of high-profile GOP leaders (Jindal, Texas senator Ted Cruz, Rubio, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and New Mexico’s promising Susanna Martinez, to name a few) drawn from ethnic minorities is a start, but no more than that.
To be sure, the Taft-sized Chris Christie — in the derogatory sense of the word — secured re-election as Republican governor of strongly Democratic New Jersey with some 60 per cent of the vote in November, a tally boosted by his success in attracting the support of over 50 per cent of Hispanic and (it’s sad that this counts as an achievement) around 20 per cent of African-American voters.
This was a feat that owed as much to his refreshingly blunt persona as to his attempt to steer his state in a more frugal direction. For while there is still a very distinctively American constituency for smaller government — check out the “don’t tread on me” flags brandished at any Tea Party rally — it is unlikely to be enough to return the White House to Republican management. In part, this reflects the fact that the country’s finances have deteriorated to a point that leaves little room to make a good case for Reagan-style tax cuts. The number is distorted by a sluggish economy, but federal tax receipts as a percentage of GDP (approaching 17 per cent) are lower than when the Gipper left office. Meanwhile publicly held federal debt as a percentage of GDP has risen from 26 per cent in 1980 to around 73 per cent today, nearly half of which is now held by intrinsically more jittery international investors.
Total federal debt (roughly $17 trillion) is calculated before factoring in the contingent liabilities arising out of underfunded entitlement programmes such as Social Security and Medicare that, according to Republican deficit hawks such as Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn or former vice-presidential candidate Congressman Paul Ryan, could amount to four, five or more times that figure. To be fair, those estimates are hotly disputed, but still . . .
On the other side of the ledger, that the sequester (a crude budget-bludgeoning device triggered by the current impasse in Washington) has so far not proved anything like as damaging as the Obama administration originally predicted should not be allowed to conceal the fact that any attempts to take America back to fiscal respectability on the back of expenditure cuts alone would involve taking a chainsaw to entitlements. According to a Bloomberg News poll last February, most Americans accept (or claim to accept) that Medicare and Social Security must be overhauled, but they view tax increases as part of the solution.
That’s anathema to many on the Right, an attitude enshrined in, and enforced through, the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” designed by Americans for Tax Reform, a pressure group formed by the influential libertarian-leaning Republican activist Grover Norquist. The pledge is essentially an undertaking to reject any net increases in tax, and it has been signed by the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the Senate and House. Sadly, even if the pledge has sometimes been interpreted more sinuously than its stern wording might suggest, it no longer is in tune with economic reality, but the political reality is that declining to sign it (let alone reneging on it) is likely to cause trouble for any Republican at primary time. That will change, probably at about the time that seniors (56 per cent of the over-65s voted for Romney in 2012) realise that their benefits are in jeopardy, but that moment has not arrived.
All this almost certainly dooms the faint chances of a bipartisan grand bargain over the federal budget at least for now. Given the current balance of political forces, this may not be such a bad thing. But it also discourages Republicans from mounting any serious effort to redesign America’s archaic and destructive tax system in ways that would make it generate more revenues while inflicting, at least in some respects, less pain. In that connection, one avenue worth exploring is the introduction of some sort of federal consumption tax, partially offset by a lower, flatter, simpler income tax. From time to time, some Republican leaders have floated variants of this, including Ryan and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels (one of the more disappointing absentees from the 2012 race). Even Mitt Romney refused to rule out the introduction of a value added tax, a position that led a staffer from the reliably shrill Newt Gingrich campaign to snipe that Romney had been looking at “European socialist ideas”. A somewhat more subtle critique has come from Norquist, long suspicious of a tax that he believes to be too efficient a money-raising machine to be trusted.
So what else is there? Republican Senator Mike Lee (Utah), cheered on by the likes of Ponnuru and the AEI’s James Pethokoukis (someone, incidentally, open to a consumption tax) is arguing for a redrawing of the tax system that incorporates a very substantial expansion of child tax credit. This family-friendly move, part of a broader drive in, to quote Ponnuru, a more “communitarian” direction, is unlikely to fly this time round, but it points to a possible future for the GOP as something closer to Western Europe’s Christian Democrats. Such an evolution in my view is not particularly desirable, but given America’s changing political environment, may be wise.
A better guide to what may come next comes from Pethokoukis’s observation in National Review Online that the 2012 campaign saw a plethora of tax-cutting proposals by Republican hopefuls seemingly “more interested in signalling their supply-side bona fides to primary voters than in offering realistic blueprints for governance”.
Ah yes, the primaries: the road to the nomination runs, of course, right through them, and I mean Right. White evangelicals and Tea Party supporters (they are not always the same people) represent a very large percentage — well over a half — of the primary vote. They are not in the mood for compromise. According to a July 2013 Pew Center survey, 69 per cent of Tea Partiers believe that the best course of action for the GOP is to move in an even more conservative direction. To design an alternative to Obamacare and a plausible budgetary fix that both manage to appeal to those voters and have a chance of convincing the wider national electorate is a very tall order, and that’s before we have begun to look at the question of the so-called “social issues” (primarily abortion and same-sex marriage) that weigh so heavily in Republican primaries.
The rise of the Tea Party was a classic populist insurgency, a revolt of country against court, propelled by disgust over the bailouts that followed the financial crisis, anxiety over the state of America’s finances, contempt for the Republican establishment and fear of what Obama might be planning. It revitalised a party sunk in deep depression after Obama’s trouncing of John McCain, and made an enormous contribution to the GOP’s bounce in the 2010 midterms. The contrast with the not entirely dissimilar folk at UKIP “pissing into” (to borrow LBJ’s entertaining terminology) the Tory tent is one that British Conservatives tut-tutting over the Tea Party would do well to note. As revolts tend to do, however, the Tea Party has not infrequently overshot, most notably by promoting candidates more on the basis of their ideological purity than their ability to win.
In doing so, they were encouraged by a segment of the conservative hierarchy already, ironically, well entrenched in Washington. To a degree unimaginable in the UK, the Right in America has a lively, powerful and well-financed intellectual, media and political infrastructure. That’s generally to the good, but it has come at a price. One or two speakers at the Yale conference complained about conservative neglect of that most essential of political skills — persuasion. Instead of reaching out to the unconvinced, conservatives have primarily been pursuing a conversation with themselves. Such conversations have a way of degenerating into a contest designed primarily to show who can be more pur and who more dur.
There was no better example of this than conservative (and famously socially conservative) South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint’s comment in early 2009 that he “would rather have 30 Republicans in the [100-strong] Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs”, an expression not of conviction, but of a fanaticism unmoored to any realistic plan for winning back power. When the Tea Party moment dawned, DeMint and others like him jumped in front of the parade, reinforcing the revolutionaries’ zeal to purge so-called RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and throwing some money their way too. To be sure, this has led to the injection of useful new blood into the party’s ranks, but it has also led to the selection of some candidates so inept, unsuitable or outright strange that the GOP threw away hopes of winning or retaining a series of crucial senate seats — from Nevada to Delaware to Indiana and beyond — that could have transformed the political calculus of recent years. Regrettably, there are signs — not least in the aftermath of DeMint’s move to the Heritage Foundation, formerly the most influential of all the conservative think-tanks — that excesses are not yet through.
No less destructively, some of the more outlandish candidates on the Right have tarnished the broader Republican image, especially when they have sounded off on social issues. Would-be senator Todd Akin blew his chances of winning a Missouri seat in 2012 when, in defending his opposition to abortion in cases of rape, he explained that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely became pregnant, a view that held some sway in the Middle Ages, but is today something, shall we say, of an outlier in obstetric circles.
Social issues have for years been essential to the Republican party’s ability to compete (there is no majority for the socially liberal, economically conservative programme favoured by libertarian-leaning or many moderate Republicans) but they have come with costs, hitting the party’s capacity to attract elite support and its appeal to women (particularly single women), the young and voters in the north-east and west. These costs are likely to rise. Same-sex marriage has won the acceptance of roughly half of all voters, and in another reminder of how the country is changing, roughly a third of all under-30s describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” (Pew Research, October 2012), the highest total ever. On the other hand, roughly 50 per cent of Americans now claim to be “pro-life” (Gallup, May 2012), although that’s a stance that comes with plenty of loopholes: more than half of these pro-lifers believe that abortion is acceptable under certain circumstances.
What seems to matter to centrist voters is how social issues are framed. They are prepared to vote for anti-abortion candidates, say, but not for those who push the issue beyond what is rather mistily defined as reasonable, or if they detect a wider agenda at work, such as the distaste for contraception displayed by former senator Rick Santorum, an oddball Beltway Savonarola who enjoyed a brief and alarming surge in the 2012 primaries. When they notice executive competence, as so often they do in the ranks of the GOP’s expanding tally of governors (30 in all, close to the record set in the 1920s), they appear to be willing to live with a conservative social agenda so long as it is not pushed à l’outrance.
So what now? More budget fights in 2014 will enable the Democrats to rekindle memories of this past autumn’s shutdown and, with them, images of the Republicans as mad, bad and dangerous to vote for. A dose of class warfare is sure to be on the agenda too. Against that, the fallout from Obamacare’s uncertain launch may still be reverberating and the programme’s deeper problems may be coming into sharper focus. The economy is likely to be walking rather than running-the labour force participation rate is the number to watch-and a foreign policy foul-up cannot be eliminated. The best guess at the moment is that the midterms will leave matters pretty much as they are now.
The ideological divisions between and within the Right and the remaining “moderates” in the Republican Party, stirred up further by would-be presidential candidates out for primary votes, will mean that a credible alternative to Obamacare and a sound fiscal plan will both remain elusive even after the midterms. Being the “party of no” may well have to do. The longer-term outlook for the GOP will continue to deteriorate, but if “events” co-operate, nay-saying buttressed by at least some ideas on what might replace the ACA could, fingers-crossed, just possibly be enough to do the trick in 2016 if the primary process can avoid the own goals of 2010 and 2012. At the presidential level, the primaries need to avoid attracting the clown posse that we saw last time (Santorum is said to be contemplating another run), or selecting a candidate (Cruz, say, or Kentucky’s Senator Paul) too hardline to have any prospect of winning back the White House, a temptation made more difficult to resist (what’s to lose?) by the failures of establishment Romney and establishment McCain. Even a more conventionally viable candidate will have to avoid being dragged into unelectability by the positions he has to take to prevail at the primaries. Despite conservative suspicion, some baggage from his past, and an occasionally spiky and difficult personality, Chris Christie might just be tough enough to pull it off.
But 2016 is a long way off. And then there is Hillary.