Speak for Middle America

Main St. Agenda by from The Weekly Standard, September 29, 2014

Pundits throw out all sorts of numbers to explain the Republican defeat in the 2012 presidential election. So here’s our number: $65,000. That is a rough estimate of the household income of the average 2012 voter. Republicans lost because Mitt Romney did not do well enough with this voter or those near him on the income scale.

These middle class Americans have some but not a lot of property, who fret about the effects of economic forces outside their control, who worry about whether their kids will enjoy a decent standard of living, and who have been struggling one way or another since the recession of 2001-02.

Say what you want about George W. Bush’s domestic agenda, it was geared toward these people. Whether the policies were sound, Bush’s middle-class tax cuts, his “ownership society,” No Child Left Behind, and private Social Security accounts were all about making these people more prosperous and secure.

What did the GOP offer these voters in 2012? One struggles to think of anything. There was a lot of talk about small businesses. Indeed, much of the party’s convention was designed to reply to Obama’s “you didn’t build that!” jibe. And there can be no doubt that helping small businesses succeed will help middle-class families—but only indirectly, which makes it hard to sell politically. So, in the end, middle-income voters backed Romney, but not as strongly as they had backed Bush eight years before, and not strongly enough.

Fast-forward two years and it is fair to ask: What has the party done on this front since its defeat? For that matter, does the party even recognize that this is its problem? Sure, its rhetoric is all about the middle class, but actions speak louder than words. In the current Congress, the Republican party has spent time trying to shut down the government, which creates confusion and uncertainty in the markets and thus agitates the middle class, and toying with comprehensive immigration reform, which would have had the effect of lowering wages for existing workers after more than a decade of middle-class wage stagnation.

Congressional Republicans would have better spent their time drawing up a middle-class agenda. They could start by adopting the perspective of families that make about $65,000 per year. These people’s economic situation is uncertain, and they pay a goodly portion of their income to the IRS—not so much through the income tax, but through Social Security and Medicare taxes, which flow into the federal government’s general revenues. So a middle-class agenda would aim to make these voters more secure and stop the government from wasting their money.

Economic security for this group primarily means lowering the cost of education, health care, and energy. Where has the Republican party stood on this in the last two years? Mike Lee has promoted interesting education reform ideas, but the leadership has not gotten behind them. The 2017 Project has put together a health care reform package that aims to contain costs for people like these, but the party leadership has offered nothing. About the only area where the party has done much is energy; not coincidentally, the energy sector is a major donor to the GOP.

What of cutting government? Republicans in Congress too often suggest that the first dollar to be cut come from programs that the middle class finds useful or worthwhile. Corporate welfare, meanwhile, which takes up a shockingly large portion of the budget, is almost never discussed. To wit, why did the congressional Republicans not make a full-throated assault on Obamacare’s risk corridor program, which is a naked payout to insurance companies? Why did they cave on the Export-Import Bank, which is a payoff to Boeing? Why did they buckle on tax reform, an opportunity to excise tens of billions in payola to the well connected? Middle America would not miss these programs. Indeed, it would be glad to see them go. Ask the average American if he thinks special interests hold too much sway, and prepare yourself to be told, “Hell, yeah, they do!”

And what about Congress itself? Middle-class people get angry at the thought of Congress because they (correctly) regard it as corrupt and irresponsible. Republicans have an ironclad grip on the House. Why not pass some tough reform measures to make members behave better?

In 2014 Republicans look to be in reasonably good shape, with a decent chance of taking control of the Senate. In 2016 they will be helped by the odds against a party holding onto the White House for a third term. But if Republicans think they can fall backwards into power, they are likely mistaken. In recent years, Republicans have done a good job of stopping the president’s leftist agenda. But that will not be enough in 2016. They will have to offer a positive alternative, something they too often have failed to do.

 © 2014 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.