Whether you call the Republican Party in trouble or in crisis, that's in part because it's a victim of its own success since the great problems of the 1970s and 1980s have been tackled, says author Ross Douthat, who points to a drop in crime rates, welfare reform, lower marginal tax rates, and the demise of the Soviet Union.
Today's party needs to resurrect itself with fresh ideas addressing the problems of working people, says Douthat, who with coauthor Reihan Salam just published Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. The two men, both editors at The Atlantic, spoke Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute. Their book puts forth a series of ideas, including reducing payroll taxes, increasing the child tax credit, expanding use of health-savings accounts, and giving school principals—not districts—discretion on how to spend public dollars.
Douthat acknowledged that no specific Republican so far "has adopted anything close to our litany of ideas." He says he and Salam aimed to provide a diverse range of Republicans—such as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (who urged the GOP to be the party of Sam's Club, not the country club), Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal—with a "pool of ideas" on which to draw.
While many Republicans understand their party is in more than a little trouble, Douthat says, the temptation is "to adopt a kind of me, too-ism" whereby the answer to problems is to take Democrats' best ideas and "promise to do them, but do them a little more cheaply and with lower taxes and so on."
He pointed to Republican presidential candidate John McCain's stand on global warming, crediting McCain for recognizing that Republican denial of the problem was neither politically nor scientifically tenable, but criticizing him for "adopting a less effective version of the Democratic plan."
"What Republicans need to be is a choice, not an echo," he says. "And Republican politicians who want a way forward need a set of ideas that contrasts with Democrats—for their own sake, for the health of the country, and so on."
The book discussion was led by David Frum, a resident fellow at AEI and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. In saluting the young authors, Frum noted that the GOP and the conservative movement face the most serious trouble—"a true collapse"—among people under age 30. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan won under-30 voters by 20 points and first-time voters by 21 points. "I don't think it would surprise any of us if Barack Obama achieved a similar margin of victory in that same cohort, reversing the Reagan triumph in this election," Frum added.