Grand New Party and Practical Politics

The talk of Cameronism reminds me that I've been meaning to address Daniel Casse's very kind review of our book for Commentary, which includes the following caveats:

The main trouble with Grand New Party lies ... in the decision of the authors to attempt both a policy analysis and a partisan political strategy in one and the same volume. When it comes to the latter, Grand New Party is unpersuasive.

In response to the GOP’s growing electoral strength in the 1980’s, the Democratic party tried to make itself more appealing to certain tightly defined demographic groups: urban liberals, Jews, blacks, gays, union members, and so on. Pollsters like Stanley Greenberg and Mark Penn, both of whom worked for Bill Clinton, went further by categorizing voters into “single urban environmentalists,” “married minivan drivers,” and the like. Grand New Party assumes that similar techniques will work for the GOP—that is, that a new coalition can be galvanized into formation by means of a list of bite-sized policies for bite-sized constituencies.

There is scant evidence that this is the case. Indeed, the Democratic effort itself proved unsuccessful when Hillary Clinton, guided by Mark Penn, sought to use it to catapult herself to the Democratic nomination.

Consider Douthat and Salam’s central notion of appealing to families as a powerful voting bloc. Demographically, the United States has an aging population, and most current polling shows that the older voters become, the less interest they have in supporting policies that help parents and children. Nor, despite the strong case made by Douthat and Salam for a governmental helping hand, are voters in general clamoring for an expansion of government services. A May 2008 survey by Rasmussen Reports found 62 percent of respondents preferring fewer government services, with lower taxes. Nowhere does this book present a realistic political strategy for reversing such sentiments.

The innovative policies proposed by Douthat and Salam might indeed bring about welcome changes for many working-class Americans. To that end, Grand New Party can serve as a valuable resource for the next Republican President’s domestic-policy team. It will, however, be far less useful as an electoral weapon for this year’s Republican presidential candidate.

I think Casse's broad point is a fair criticism: The second half of the book does try to interweave policy and politics, but it focuses more on the former than the latter, and it's not surprising if some of our attempts to play political strategist for would-be Sam's Club candidates feel a little forced. Our main goal was to pool a wide variety of policy ideas that future right-of-center candidates might draw on, and as a result I think the book probably has more to offer a politician looking for proposals to weave into a pre-existing stump speech or campaign narrative than to one looking for a complete blueprint for how to run for office as a Republican in 2012 or 2016.

That being said, I would push back a bit on the specifics of Casse's critique. I'm second-to-none in my disdain for the "microtargeting" approach to politics, and while it's true that our book gets somewhat micro at times - when we're talking about telecommuters, say, or Plains State farmers, or homeschoolers - by and large I find the claim that we're offering "bite-sized policies for bite-sized constituencies" (which is a fairly common critique of the book, I've noticed) a little puzzling. If anything, I think the book errs somewhat in the opposite direction, by generalizing (and sometimes overgeneralizing) about very large, very diverse constituencies - the working class first and foremost, which after all is a majority of the American electorate under our definition, but also groups like "working families" and "parents who send their kids to public schools" and "suburbanites" and "Americans who have employer-provided health care." Indeed, we repeatedly criticize some of the most common forms of right-wing microtargeting - whether we're arguing against the Bush Administration's assumption that the way to win Hispanics is to pander to their ethnic loyalties, or advising social conservatives to broaden the often-sectarian appeals of the religious right into a more ecumenical language of moral renewal, or criticizing economic conservatives' focus on a somewhat-chimerical "investor class." I certainly take Casse's point about the limits of a pro-family party's appeal in an aging society with declining marriage rates; indeed, I think these demographic trends are one of the biggest challenges facing the GOP over the next twenty years. But I still think that the voting blocs we're talking about - families with children, Americans with a high school diploma and some college, etc. - are large enough that a party that focuses on their interests would be engaged in the sort of macro-targeting that can build enduring majorities, rather than the sort of Rove or Penn-style micro-targeting that gets you to 51 percent by the skin of your teeth.

I'd also add that we have no interest in reversing the American bias in favor of lower taxes and fewer government services - we like that bias, and if anything our long-term goal is to strengthen it, by addressing the social and economic forces that (in our view, at least) are eroding it. But I think that the sort of polls Casse cites are a little misleading, since when you ask Americans about whether government should spend more or less in specific areas, they tend to become considerably more favorable to expanding government's role, and considerably more hostile to spending cuts. This is the landscape in which conservatism has to find a way to operate - a landscape in which Americans favor less government in the abstract, but more government on a case-by-case basis, which in turn means that a would-be center-right majority needs to offer an agenda of welfare-state reform, rather saying "no" to everything the Democrats propose and leaving it at that.