Two Paths To Reform

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The nice thing about a resounding defeat is that everyone can look at the exit polls and find confirmation that the GOP needs to do better among their favored constituency. I can read the exits and see a party that lost six points, compared to 2004, among voters making $30,000 to $50,000, seven points among voters making $50,000 to $75,000, six points among high school graduates and seven points among voters with "some college," and interpret all of this as evidence that the GOP needs to a better job of, well, winning the working class (and saving the American Dream!) David Frum, on the other hand, can look at polls showing that McCain lost three points among college graduates, nine points among people making $100,000 a year, and an astonishing seventeen points among people making over $200,000 a year, and argue that the party faces a stark choice: It can keep trying to maximize its share of the white working class vote, perhaps by nominating candidates like Sarah Palin, or it can make the wiser choice, in Frum's view, and try to win back rich, well-educated white Americans by embracing "painful change" on issues like the environment and abortion. (Frum's binary assumes, I should note, that the GOP can't improve its standing among Hispanics, at least in the short term.)

Now obviously a successful party would want to regain ground on multiple fronts at once - winning back working-class voters and wooing the college-educated and upper-income demographics. And obviously how you do this depends on who and where you are: A Republican running for office in, say, suburban New England will need to be more pro-environment and more pro-choice than the national party, and a GOP that's losing ground almost everywhere has every reason to be accommodating of regional differences - just as the Democrats have been of late, by mounting pro-life, anti-immigration candidates for office in conservative districts and reddish states.

But for the national party, Frum is right that there are real choices to be made. If you follow the Douthat-Salam model, which Reihan has dubbed "lower-middle reformism," you're going to be crafting a message aimed at the place where the non-college educated and college-educated categories bleed into one another - one pitched to the exurb-living college graduate who picked up a degree from a regional public university (or jumped from school to school and didn't finish in four years, like Sarah Palin), and who probably has more in common, culturally and economically, with a lot of grads of community colleges and technical schools than he does with someone who went to, say, Swarthmore. This approach requires talking a lot about the famous "kitchen table" issues - public education and transportation, crime and health care costs - and trying to expand the definition of what it means to be "pro-family" without abandoning the GOP's core pro-life convictions. If you follow the model Frum recommends in his column, on the other hand - call it "upper-middle reformism" - and pitch your message to the Obama-voting, ex-Rockefeller Republicans making $150,000 a year, then you're talking to a "post-material" group of people who worry less about day-to-day economic concerns and more about causes like global warming - making Frum's vision of a pro-choice, pro-carbon tax GOP a more plausible fit. (Frum has also proposed a fat tax, which is likewise something that seems most likely to appeal to the healthy, wealthy voters at the upper tail of the income and education distribution.)

Again, I don't think this is a completely either/or matter for the GOP. A party that restores its reputation for competence and policy seriousness, as the Republicans desperately need to do, will win back voters across the income and educational spectrum, no matter what specific positions it takes. But insofar as there's a choice to be made, I think building a coalition of social conservatives and social moderates from the middle of the income and education distribution makes much more political sense than trying to hold together a coalition of social conservatives from the middle of the distribution and social liberals from the upper end. Joe the Plumber and Joe the Office-Park Employee make much more plausible political bedfellows than Joe the Plumber and Joseph the Hedge Fund Guy. Moreover, I think a conservatism that's primarily oriented around the interests of the first pair of Joes is the better choice for America as well - because these are voters who face the most significant socioeconomic challenges in the current landscape, and who most deserve a government, and a right-of-center politics, that looks out for their interests. As a wise conservative writer put it not that long ago:

... The county's new wealth and diversity have created important new social problems. The schools are stressed. The roads are choked. Land use is more contentious ... For most of the Bush administration, G.D.P. grew strongly, the stock market boomed, new jobs were created. But the ordinary person experienced little benefit. The median household income, which rose in the '90s, had only just caught up to its 2000 level when the expansion ended in 2007.

... Between 2001 and 2008, the amount that employers paid for labor rose impressively, at least 25 percent. Yet almost all of that money was absorbed by the costs of health insurance, which doubled over the Bush years. In the 1990s, thanks to the advent of H.M.O.'s, health-care costs rose more slowly, so more of the money paid by employers could flow to employees.

Out of their flat-lining incomes, middle-class Americans have had to pay more for food, fuel, tuition and out-of-pocket health-care costs. In the past few months, they have suffered sharp tumbles in the value of their most important asset, their homes. Their mood has turned bleak. Almost 70 percent disapprove of the policies of George W. Bush. At intervals over the past two decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether the United States is a society divided into "haves" and "have-nots." Back in 1988, more than 70 percent of Americans rejected this description. This year, the country split evenly: 49-49. When asked, "Are you better off than you were five years ago?" only 41 percent of middle-class Americans say yes, the worst result since pollsters started asking the question half a century ago.

It's this pervasive economic unease that is capsizing the Republican Party ...

This writer, of course, was David Frum.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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