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Reaching Out to the Strivers

In the 2012 Presidential election, 53% of voters believed that Mitt Romney’s policies favored the rich, with only 34% and 2% believing that they favored the middle class and the poor, respectively. Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s policies were largely viewed as favoring the middle class (44%) and the poor (31%), with only 10% saying that they favored the rich.

This reflects the underlying differences in the images of the two political parties. While Republicans have traditionally been viewed as the party of high earners and big business, Democrats are viewed as the party of the working poor, minorities, and intellectuals. While Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were able to appeal to the swing bloc of middle income voters with the promise of tax relief and increased military spending, and, the latter, even reach out, with limited success, to Democrats’ core constituencies with his proposals for faith-based programs, immigration reform, and No Child Left Behind, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney all failed in this area, both due to personal qualities and the image of the Republican Party.

Nevertheless, the traditional approach of large reductions in income tax rates may be losing its appeal. From data available since the 1950s, voters have always viewed their taxes as being too high, even after the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s. However, since the end of the 1990s, large numbers of voters have started viewing their tax burden as being “about right”, sometimes tying with those who view their tax burden as “too high”. Almost 60% of voters also believe that the amount of federal income tax that they have to pay is “fair”.

Just as worrying for Republican tax-cutters is the fact that while the wealthiest Americans are currently paying a disproportionate portion of the total income tax take, more than 60% say that high-income earners and corporations are paying “too little” in tax, and 40% say that low-income people are taxed “too much”. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans believe that the middle class pays a “fair share”. Americans also favor a more even distribution of wealth, and are evenly split on whether this should be achieved through government taxation.

These statistics explain the substantial support for liberal proposals for higher taxes on investors and job creators, such as the Buffett Rule and the expiration of the Bush-era tax rates on incomes above $250,000. Despite this, in an apparent contradiction, a plurality of Americans still favor decreasing the amount of federal taxes that they pay.

I believe that it is a combination of the feeling that the tax burden is mostly “about right”, support for policies such as temporary tax credits and the payroll tax holiday, concern for the low revenues which have contributed to large deficits, and opposition towards relatively low marginal tax rates on corporations and high-income earners, which has allowed the Democrats to neutralize, and even reverse, the Republican advantage on the issue of taxation, and thus win the middle class vote. The Republican reputation for supporting “large, debt-funded tax cuts for the rich” and “draconian cuts to social programs (especially healthcare and education)”, definitely has not helped us. Furthermore, this has also undermined our attacks on issues like cronyism, federal spending, and welfare, because while Americans agree with us on these issues, we lose overwhelmingly on “empathy” and “compassion”.

Barack Obama and the Democrats exploited our weaknesses here aggressively, using personal attacks on Mitt Romney’s affluence and character, identity-based warfare-style criticism of Republican fiscal and social policies, doubts of Republicans’ honesty and trustworthiness, and carefully-targeted initiatives to individual constituencies (such as student loan forgiveness, public school funding, and birth control subsidization).

While we may have lost in this election, we continue to hold a few key advantages on ideas and issues. Americans largely continue to favor small, limited government, rather than an activist Washington (although Rasmussen shows a big shift on this front, in the Democrats’ favor). Americans would also support a bipartisan tax overhaul that lowers overall rates and reduces complex loopholes and preferences.

Nevertheless, our image as an extreme, hyperpartisan, somewhat hypocritical party of the “rich” that lacks the common touch makes it difficult for us to make use of these openings. Even our reputation for managerial competence has been left shaky after the two Bush administrations.

Our first step must be to repair our image as the party that is competent in managing the economy. While we historically held the advantage on this area, except in the decades immediately following the Great Depression, Bill Clinton’s leadership allowed the Democrats to catch up, while the two Bush administrations faltered in economic management.

This is why we must, above all, distance ourselves from the failures of these administrations. We must acknowledge that many mistakes were made. For instance, we failed to restrain pork-barrel spending, and allowed Wall Street to go out of control (with a lot of help from the Democrats’ insistence on throwing up red tape that reformed nothing and confused everyone), leaving Main Street taxpayers and consumers with the tab.

This also means that we must come up with serious, substantive policy proposals that represent a clear break with the failures of the past. While Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Congressional Republicans put in a lot of effort on this area, they were often impeded by the party leadership, and a media that pecked at every detail, or lack thereof. Thus, we must improve on our current policy proposals by making them clearer, bolder, more specific, and more practical, like the Medicare premium support proposal has evolved. This includes our proposals for tax reform, where we have not always been totally clear and honest about which specific preferences we would limit or eliminate, allowing accusations of a budgetary black hole, and for budget cuts, where we have advocated large reductions in overall discretionary spending but not specified the reforms that much be implemented to achieve many of the savings. In some cases, the problem has also been a mere lack of marketing, especially in healthcare, education, regulatory reform, housing, and infrastructure.

We must then reclaim our natural ground as the party of “empathy” and “compassion”. To do this, above all else, we have to explain how our principles and policies help ordinary people, and not just in terms of a “moral case for free-market capitalism” or “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

We need to show how common-sense Conservative Republican policies that reduce the size, reach, and cost of the government not only help entrepreneurs, investors, and entrepreneurs, but also how they encourage work, saving, and investment by letting people keep more of what they earn, and thus create more jobs and higher take-home pay, improve the quality of life, guarantee financial security, and lower the cost of living for hardworking middle-class families.

We also need to reach out to the working poor, and those on the lower side of the income scale. While many of them voted for the Democrats, they are not inevitably in favor of the culture of dependency and entitlement represented by that party. Many of them can be won over by a smartly-tailored message of social mobility and economic empowerment, achieved through anti-poverty, pro-growth economic policies that help people off welfare and into good-paying work, as well as education reform that tackles the “soft bigotry of low expectations (or rather, of poor schools)”. We must begin to realize that Conservatism is not restricted to libertarian fundamentalism, or Bush-style big government “compassion”, but is rather based, yes, on limited government and free enterprise, but also on the strong communities and families that these bring.

And then, we must have effective messengers to the middle class and low-income voters. This is not only on the Presidential level. We should ensure that our party is represented by people who can articulate common-sense Conservative principles and policies, and communicate the purpose of these, both to the entire population and to individual people, and all the different levels in between. Preferably, they should demonstrate how we are the party of aspiration rather than privilege.

There is a debate to be had on our message on social issues, as well as foreign policy and national security. Nevertheless, on economic policy, our party’s direction is clear. We must be the party of the Opportunity Society, as Mitt Romney said but never explained very well. We must fight for the little guy, against the corruption of Washington, represented by insider politicians, lobbyists, and cronies. We must stand up for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in its many forms. We must represent the entrepreneur’s dream, the retiree’s security, the parent’s reward, and the youth’s opportunity. And we must represent the nation, society, and communities that they form together.

Low, simple, flat and fair taxes. Low spending and balanced budgets. Light and sensible regulations. Strong and stable currency. Free and fair trade. Choice and accountability in education. Sustainable social programs for the old, poor, and sick. These things actually work. But how will Americans know?

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