How to ap­peal to the white work­ing class

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Mona Charen

The spec­tac­u­larly dread­ful de­but of Oba­macare rep­re­sents the great­est po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity for con­ser­vatism and the Repub­li­can Party in two gen­er­a­tions. Big gov­ern­ment stands re­buked. It has over­reached, over­promised, and, em­bar­rass­ingly, failed to de­liver. Even if the web­site’s grem­lins are ban­ished, and even if Oba­macare purrs along like a BMW from now on, vot­ers will be dis­il­lu­sioned.

They will be dis­ap­pointed be­cause the pres­i­dent and his party promised that the pro­gram would pro­vide cov­er­age to the unin­sured, ex­pand the ser­vices pro­vided at no charge to cus­tomers, cover those with pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions, oblige in­sur­ers to keep adult chil­dren on their par­ents’ poli­cies, re­move life­time caps, and of­fer free pre­ven­tive care. At the same time, (set ital) no one would pay a penny more (end ital) (In fact, ev­ery­one’s premi­ums would de­cline by $2,500.), and no one would lose ac­cess to the plan they were happy with or be obliged to switch doc­tors. Oh, and not a dime would be added to the deficit.

It’s been said that the Democrats are the Santa Claus party. For gen­er­a­tions, they’ve suc­ceeded po­lit­i­cally by de­liv­er­ing ben­e­fits and send­ing the bill to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. That is how we’ve ac­cu­mu­lated a na­tional debt that is, ac­cord­ing to the com­mis­sion ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Obama, north of $86 tril­lion. (Repub­li­cans have con­trib­uted as well.)

If Democrats had struc­tured Oba­macare the same way -- ben­e­fits now, costs put off into the in­def­i­nite fu­ture -- they would not be in im­me­di­ate trou­ble. But Repub­li­cans had suc­ceeded in in­flu­enc­ing the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture enough that Democrats feared they could not pass another new en­ti­tle­ment (even one re­ly­ing solely on Demo­cratic votes) that did not at least pay lip ser­vice to deficit neu­tral­ity. That’s how they came up with the con­vo­luted tan­gle of ex­changes, sub­si­dies, man­dates, taxes, reg­u­la­tions, and Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion that is cur­rently nose-div­ing.

Be­cause Democrats at­tempted to keep Oba­macare deficit-neu­tral, some­one had to pay. Vot­ers might have thought that priv­i­lege would go only to the rich. But sub­stan­tial num­bers of mid­dle-in­come Amer­i­cans are find­ing that the new law, rather than de­liv­er­ing a ben­e­fit, is tak­ing some­thing away from them. Some are los­ing money, as their premi­ums rise; oth­ers are los­ing cov­er­age, as their plans are can­celled.

Vot­ers may ac­cord­ingly be newly re­cep­tive to the Repub­li­can mes­sage of skep­ti­cism about big gov­ern­ment. But an op­por­tu­nity is not a sil­ver plat­ter.

Writ­ing in The Amer­i­can, Henry Olsen scans An­drew Levison’s new book “The White Work­ing Class” for clues about how Repub­li­cans can ap­peal to this group. Levison, a lib­eral, hopes to help Democrats craft their mes­sages, but his re­search is con­sis­tent with that of Sean Trende of RealClearPol­i­tics and oth­ers sug­gest­ing that white vot­ers with­out col­lege de­grees are more hos­tile to free en­ter­prise and small gov­ern­ment than many Repub­li­cans would like to be­lieve.

Mem­bers of the white work­ing class, Olsen notes, are “sus­pi­cious of the idea that busi­ness lead­ers and fi­nan­cial ex­perts have their in­ter­ests at heart. ... Well over half be­lieve that busi­ness makes too much profit and that Wall Street does more to hurt than to help the econ­omy. Three-quar­ters be­lieve that a few large com­pa­nies hold too much power. Th­ese vot­ers do see gov­ern­ment as a prob­lem, but they also be­lieve that big gov­ern­ment is not the only ob­sta­cle in their paths.”

Work­ing class whites strongly op­pose free trade, im­mi­gra­tion, and even (by 50-39) at­tempts by gov­ern­ment to en­cour­age “tra­di­tional mo­ral­ity.” Sean Trende calls them Perot vot­ers. They don’t sup­port the idea of big gov­ern­ment, but they be­lieve gov­ern­ment should do more to help the needy, even if it means in­creas­ing deficits. Half agree that the poor’s lives are hard be­cause gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits don’t go far enough.

Th­ese vot­ers don’t iden­tify with the Repub­li­can mes­sage of en­trepreneur­ship and “You built it.” They are not es­pe­cially am­bi­tious but in­stead want a se­cure job and re­li­able gov­ern­ment ser­vices. They’re of­fended when slack­ers, il­le­gal im­mi­grants and other non-de­serv­ing groups get gov­ern­ment sup­port (and that in­cludes bankers and big busi­ness).

This is not to sug­gest that Repub­li­cans sim­ply par­rot what vot­ers tell poll­sters. There is al­ways room for lead­er­ship, per­sua­sion and prin­ci­ple. But Repub­li­cans can­not be­gin to take ad­van­tage of the po­lit­i­cal open­ing cre­ated by the dis­ap­point­ment of Oba­macare and craft an ef­fec­tive mes­sage of Repub­li­can re­form un­til they’ve shed some out­dated as­sump­tions about the elec­torate.

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