"I know some in the media think conservatives don't care about cities. But they're wrong," Bush said. Everybody has a right to success, Bush added, "So let's go where the ideas matter the most, where the failure of liberal policies are the most obvious."
His message is aimed squarely at white working-class and middle-class Americans who, along with young "millennial" voters, are seeping from the Democratic Party under President Obama.
Many of these disaffected Americans are children and grandchildren of "Reagan Democrats," the term used for traditionally Democratic voters who defected to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and, in smaller numbers, to President George H.W. Bush (Jeb's father) in 1988. Identified by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in the Detroit suburbs of Macomb County, these voters tended to be moderate Democrats who are more conservative than liberal on issues such as national security, immigration, and race.
The day before Bush's speech, I talked to a couple dozen voters at Macomb County Community College and found intense ambiguity. They are unhappy with the unfulfilled promise of Obama ("He was supposed to bring people together," said Charlotte Hurst, an 83-year-old black retiree waiting for her daughter and grandson to finish their classes) and alarmed by the harsh rhetoric of the Hard Right ("Some of those guys are just crazy," said Carolyn Pawlicki, a 20-year-old independent from Dearborn, Mich.).
Every voter I met spoke of two things. First, their frustration with the cost of higher education in an economy that virtually requires one or more degrees; they appreciate Obama's proposal for free community college, but worry about its cost to the federal treasury. Second, their disillusionment with the U.S. political system; neither party seems capable of reversing the decades-old decline of economic opportunity that is so palpable here.
"The way they go about it in Washington—one side against the other, bickering, and nothing gets done," said Mary Feighner, 21, of St. Clair Shores, Mich. "They argue like little children."
In his essay "The Emerging Republican Advantage," my colleague John B. Judis wrote:
The White House understands that Democrats have a problem with white working-class and middle-class voters and is now calling for a "middle-class tax cut" aimed squarely at them. Yet the Democratic nominee in 2016 will still have to shoulder the size-of-government and who-benefits-from-tax-dollars grievances created by Obama's initial spending programs and by the Affordable Care Act.
The Democrats' best chances in next year's elections will come if Republicans run candidates identified with the Religious Right or the tea party or the GOP's plutocratic wing. If Republicans are smart, they will nominate for president someone in the mold of George W. Bush in 2000 or the numerous GOP Senate candidates who won last year—a politician who runs from the center-right, soft-pedals social issues, including immigration, critiques government without calling for abolishing the income tax and Social Security, and displays a good ol' boy empathy for the less well-to-do. Such a candidate would cater to the Republican advantage among the middle class without alienating the white working class.