HOW REPUBLICANS CAN WIN THE
WORKING CLASS AND SAVE THE AMERICAN DREAM
By Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam
Doubleday, $23.95, 244 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN R. COYNE JR.
Shake a tree in Washington, and a book about reviving the Republican party falls out. Of the current crop, “Grand New Party” is one of the best written, and people on both sides of the fence are plugging it. William Kristol calls it “THE political book of 2008,” and advises John McCain to read it. (Perhaps not. Mr. McCain has a short temper, and might not appreciate a book about the Republican future mentioning him briefly only five times). Andrew Sullivan gives it a plug, and in a much discussed New Yorker article, George Packer writes that “any Republican politician worried about his party’s eroding base and grim prospects should make a careful study of this book.”
Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, young Atlantic editors (Mr. Douthat made his bones as an intern at National Review), are concerned with shoring up that base and adding to it. The thesis is that members of “the working class,” defined as “the non-college educated voters who make up roughly half the American electorate” and elected FDR, Nixon, Reagan and Bush have “transformed the Republican Party from the ‘party of the country club’ to the ‘party of Sam’s Club,’” as Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty put it.
But although working class voters turned right in the Nixon-Reagan-Bush elections, “they frequently slide back leftward,” the contention being that traditional conservative beliefs have impeded the creation of a stable new electoral majority. “If conservatives had one golden dream,” they write, ” it was not merely to slow government’s growth, but to shrink it dramatically — to abolish Cabinet agencies and vast, money-wasting programs, to return power to the states and tax dollars to the people.”
In discussing “the Right of 1964,” they observe: “The Right’s intellectuals were brilliant, but many of them were cranky Manicheans … only half at home in modern America and prone to sweeping implausible claims about the collectivist tyranny of the modern welfare state, and the inevitable decline of the west.”
Among these “cranky Manicheans,” the authors Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham and Frank Meyer — three of most important names in conservative history and thought. To be sure, Chambers and Meyer could be seen as somewhat eccentric, in part because of their experiences with Communism. And in those intense Cold War days, the triumph of the West was in no way certain. But Chambers was a man of great courage and conviction, and a splendid writer. Meyer was a thinker and theoretician, a bookman, and the first National Review senior editor to push for welcoming the early neocons into the conservative movement. And James Burnham? Quiet, courtly, a gentleman, with degrees from Princeton and Oxford, philosopher and scholar, author of “The Coming Defeat of Communism,” “Congress and the American Tradition,” and “The Managerial Revolution.” Early on, like many of the neocons, he considered himself a Trotskyist. But a “cranky Manichean?” Hardly. (Nor, for that matter, was Ronald Reagan, who during those intense Cold War years, when the outcome was still in doubt, accepted most of those “implausible claims.”).
“There were exceptions,” the authors write, “William F. Buckley Jr., of course, and the pragmatic William Rusher, who would do so much to build the majority to come …” No elaboration, however, and of Bill Buckley’s creation, National Review, there’s this odd supposition: “Reagan called National Review his favorite magazine but it was the neoconservative Commentary that probably had more influence on his foreign policy, foreign and domestic alike.”
Highly unlikely, as anyone close to Mr. Reagan would attest. But no matter. The purpose here is to establish the central role of neoconservative ideas in building and maintaining a new majority. Working class Americans, say the authors, have come to understand the programs of the welfare state “as central to their prosperity.” This basic truth “has prevented the Republican Party from consolidating an enduring majority, despite all the right-wing intellectual victories and all the conservative electoral gains. It defeated Goldwater, it ruined Gingrich, and it crippled the domestic policy of George W. Bush”
Some might say that more than anything else, the domestic policy of the Bush administration was crippled by Iraq. Wars usually trump domestic concerns, and if the objective is to implement and fund domestic programs, the best advice may be to try to avoid starting new wars.
However, that horse has been well beaten elsewhere. Mr. Douthat and Mr. Salam include only four brief references to Iraq and concentrate instead on their domestic initiatives “to save the American dream.” Among the proposals: Instituting family-friendly tax reforms that eliminate most deductions and greatly expand tax credits for children; easing the load on working mothers through a system of subsidies and pension credits for work done in the home; reforming welfare by working with employers like Wal-Mart to initiate wage subsidies; developing a compromise on immigration that satisfies both opponents and proponents of open borders. In other areas, they propose hiring more police, especially young men from the inner cities; decentralizing education through charter schools, distance learning, home schooling; and abolishing established agricultural subsidies in favor of funding for environmentally friendly approaches.
Interesting proposals with admirable goals — but goals that will be difficult to realize, conflicting as they do with the imperatives of nearly every entrenched interest in the United States. And should some of these proposals actually see the light of day, there’s this: Every massive new bureaucracy in Washington, with all its new constituencies, has been built on the foundation of programs and policies – often imaginative and always well meaning — very much like those proposed in “Grand New Party.”
And that might bother some conservatives just a bit — unless, of course, they’ve come to embrace what a writer once referred to as “the nonsensical neologism of big government conservatism.”
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.