What you see is what you get. The Republican field for the nomination for President is set and it’s on to the main event, so quit looking for the knight on a white horse–he or she isn’t coming. Can one of the candidates measure up to the challenge? We’ll see, and one of them will obviously be nominated, but so far I don’t see any one of them rising to the occasion in a way that is convincing to the electorate. And what is the occasion? I can’t put it any better than the Wall Street Journal: “America’s problems reflect a philosophical gulf far more than they do technocratic policy differences. The country is sharply divided over the role of government as a driver of economic investment and redistributor of wealth.” The one who can articulate that divide and boldly suggest both practical and moral solutions will rise above the others. Again, as I have said a number of times, this isn’t a math problem, it’s about the deepest values that we hold dear, and the current regime has failed miserably in addressing this challenge.
But that failure is not enough to ensure its removal from power. And recent polling provides a sense of the battle ahead. As reported by Henry Olsen of The Hill, the Pew Research Center identified eight distinct voting blocs beyond party membership that help to define voting preferences. The critical one for Republicans is “Disaffecteds”, made up primarily of whites without a college degree who are political independents, a bloc without a majority of which the Republicans likely cannot win the Presidential election. And here is the problem: This bloc is significantly at odds with the mainstream Republican priority on the importance of reducing the budget deficit, on major cuts in government programs, and on tax increases. They are significantly more likely to want to cut defense spending and are adamantly opposed to altering entitlements, including majorities among them who oppose Congressman Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform plan.
For conservatives, this is a real problem. If the Obama administration continues to slide in popularity, there is a slight chance that he can be beaten without resolving these differences, but one thing is certain: the country cannot be repaired or even governed without a resolution of these core issues going forward, regardless of who is in the White House. And aside from Ryan’s efforts I don’t see the kind of messaging and boldness from the loyal opposition that will carry the day for these “disaffecteds”; certainly I am not seeing it on the campaign trail, and if what we see now is all we get, it won’t get the job done.
Mario Loyola of the Texas Public Policy Foundation has written of the 21st century version of “a tale of two cities”, featuring the dramatic differences in the fates of Detroit and Houston in the period since World War II and the difference made by public policy. Michael Barone has written similarly about “The Fall of the Midwest Economic Model” and how, in 1970, the future seemed to belong to Michigan’s example of big companies and big unions. Not anymore. Both now seem to agree that, in Loyola’s words, “In the degree of collusion between business and government, in the power of labor unions, in the method of economic development, in the burden of taxation and regulation, in the tolerance of diversity–in all these ways and more, the two cities (Detroit and Houston) stand as diametric opposites in the choices a society can make.”
Stark differences in models, no doubt. But back to the “disaffecteds” and we find that, as David Brooks notes about this class, voters in the region described by Loyola and Barone “face structural problems, not cyclical ones………..Intensely suspicious of government, they are nonetheless casting about for somebody, anybody, who can revive their towns and neighborhoods. Disillusioned by big government and big debt, they at least want to see their government reflect their values of discipline, order, and responsibility………..American politics are volatile because nobody has an answer for these people. They will remain volatile until somebody finds one.”
What will it take to find this answer and to break out of a cycle wherein conservatives are periodically able to roll back the excesses of the left, but have apparently lost support of the core of middle and working class independents, who obviously feel threatened, in significantly reversing the entitlement regime? This is the major challenge of the 21st century and a subject for another essay, but suffice to say that it cannot be accomplished without significant improvement in elementary, secondary, and higher education leadership and productivity.