The Upscale Party: Obama's Budget Gives Republicans a Shot With Wealthy Voters

An article on National Review Online takes issue with my theory that Republicans need to go upscale.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

In National Review Online Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam take issue with me very politely (they call me a "distinguished political journalist") on whether the Republicans should go upscale or downscale. I say (tentatively) upscale, they say (with intelligent qualifications) downscale. It's a thoughtful article, and one worth pondering for a long time. Let me indicate where I agree and disagree.

Disagree. They write, "To the extent that Republicans have to choose among which group to find new voters, they should look first to 'downscale' voters without college degrees." But they concede that the college-educated "represent a large and growing share of the electorate—45 percent in 2008, over a third of whom have post-graduate degrees" and that John McCain won non-college whites 58 percent to 40 percent. That strikes me as pretty good numbers for Republicans among that demographic, and just about as high as can be hoped for in any fairly close election. College-educated whites, in contrast, voted 51 percent to 47 percent for McCain. I think there's more room for improvement here.

Disagree. They argue that high-education young voters tend to live in densely populated metro areas with big government, and that they are looking to the Democrats for financial relief. They cite polling evidence that upscale liberals are liberal on economic as well as cultural issues, and they doubt that their minds can be changed on the former. I wonder. Views on cultural issues are rooted in lifestyle choices and deep moral beliefs, and so aren't easily changed. But on economics upscale voters have had little experience with liberal economic policies, at least at the federal level, since the Republican victories of 1994 took tax increases off the table. Now it looks like they're actually going to experience higher taxes. I think there's a good chance that what have been theoretical agreement could be transformed into practical disagreement by events.

Agree. In policy terms, Ramesh and Reihan recommend "placing less emphasis on tax cuts for high earners and more on tax cuts for people in the middle of the income spectrum" and "free-market policies to make health care more affordable and secure for the middle class." This echoes some of the recommendations in Reihan's and Ross Douthat's excellent 2008 book Grand New Party. And at least some conservatives have been thinking along those lines, like those who endorsed a payroll tax cut as part of the stimulus package. Those who advise Republicans to just run on the Reagan tax cuts again overlook the fact that the top income tax rate, even under the Obama budget, will be lower than the 50 percent rate (and 70 percent on investment income) that prevailed when Reagan took office. And they overlook the fact that 40 percent of households don't pay federal income taxes at all. Reducing the tax burden in some intelligent way means moving in another direction. Although I should add that Republicans should denounce the Obama plan for reducing the charitable deduction for high earners—a measure that is sure to reduce charitable contributions and channel money away from Tocquevillian voluntary associations and toward Weberian government bureaucrats (and the public employees unions). I'm not sure that the tax policies that Ramesh and Reihan suggest would increase the Republican share of the non-college white vote above 58 percent. But as intelligent public policy they might increase the Republican share of most segments of the electorate by some significant quantum.

Disagree. These two sentences. "But adding married black and Latino and Asian cultural conservatives could revive the party. (There is, incidentally, absolutely no reason to think that young single people will keep voting Democratic in the same percentage as they become older married people.)"

On minority cultural conservatives, I'm not sure what issues they have in mind. Yes, the Democratic percentage among blacks probably peaked in 2008, at 95 percent, and will surely decline just a little as time goes on. But Southern whites voted solidly Democratic for 90 years after Appomattox and if blacks vote solidly Democratic for that long after the Goldwater candidacy you are talking about 2054. As for Latino and Asian cultural conservatives, I don't think they're very numerous, and most of them are voting Republican already (George W. Bush carried Protestant Hispanics, most of them evangelical or Pentecostal, in 2004). As for Asians, Republicans do pretty well with Vietnamese but badly with Filipinos. They're not just one demographic.

On young people. Here Ramesh and Reihan may prove to be right, but as I see it there's no guarantee. On cultural issues, young voters tend to be a little less liberal on abortion than their elders but much more liberal on same-sex marriage and gay-related issues, and my guess is that these attitudes will prove to be lasting. On economics, I think they're much more moveable, and that there is a tension that Republicans can exploit between the 21st century, Internet-savvy Obama campaign and appeal and the mid-20th century centralized-command-and-control economic program of the Obama administration. Does the MyObama generation really want union thugs taking their dues money and having federal arbitrators setting the wages work rules they must live with? The numbers really tell Republicans they must do a better job of getting in touch with these voters. Voters under 30 voted 66 percent to 32 percent for Barack Obama. John McCain carried young voters in only nine states with 57 electoral votes. Republicans would be unwise to rely on marriage and parenthood to turn these numbers around.

On reflection, I think there's a danger here in thinking too much like political campaign consultants and not enough like public policy innovators. My article was tilted more to the campaign consultant side than is Ramesh and Reihan's, which provides valuable material for thought on what Republicans should do in the long term. In the short term, though, I think the Obama budget hands Republicans opportunities to take strong stands on economic issues which can appeal to a wide swathe of the electorate, and especially to the upscale-and-young voters among whom they did so dismally in 2006 and 2008. And I don't think that framing and exploiting such issues would necessarily mean, as Ramesh and Reihan say the upscale strategy would, jettisoning a fair number of old conservative principles. It would mean addressing the subject at hand and presenting a better vision of what the future can be. On that Ramesh and Reihan give us a lot to think about.

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