Today’s conservatives have a problem. The middle class is increasingly anxious about its economic prospects, and with good reason. Inflation-adjusted earnings have declined for most people since 2000, long before the collapse of 2008. Young adults face more than $1.2 trillion in college debt, declining entry-level salaries, high costs of housing and childrearing, and dwindling employer health and pension benefits.
With new public attention being paid to inequality of income and wealth, these concerns don’t exactly play to conservative strength. The era since 1981 has been one of turning away from public remediation, toward tax cuts, limited social spending, deregulation, and privatization. None of this worked well, except for the very top. For everyone else, the shift to conservative policies generated more economic insecurity. The remedies are those of liberals’. So what’s a conservative to do?
A good illustration of how the right is responding is a manifesto titled Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. The document is a series of essays written by people who profess to be intellectually serious, “reform conservatives,” as a credulous press calls them.
Room to Grow is published by the YG Network, which stands for “Young Guns.” The manifesto acknowledges as Young Guns founders House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a trinity that suggests the limits of reform.
The editors and writers include such middle-aged guns as Peter Wehner, former head of George W. Bush’s in-house White House think tank; Yuval Levin, founding editor of the journal National Affairs; Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute, and National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru.
At least these conservatives admit Republicans have a problem. The document begins by candidly stating the plight of the middle class and the challenges facing the right. “Sixty-two percent of those in the middle class say the Republican Party favors the rich while 16 percent say the Democratic Party favors the rich,” Wehner writes. “Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals.”
Well, yes. But the remedies the young guns offer are mostly the same old stuff—more tax cuts, tax credits for everything from health insurance to education, more deregulation, more vouchers, more cuts in social supports. To help the long-term unemployed, they propose a temporary reduced minimum wage.
To read this manifesto, you would think liberals had been in charge since 1981 and that the woes of the middle class had not worsened during an era of conservative dominance. Where the document offers genuinely new stuff, it can be out of touch bordering on creepy.
For example, the authors, proposing cuts in social insurance, write that “Social Security and Medicare have ‘crowded out’ the traditional incentive to raise children as a protection against poverty in old age. Today, most workers can reasonably foresee getting enough support from the public retirement system to stay out of poverty when they get older, making it less likely that they will have to call on direct aid—either in cash or in kind—from their own children.” In other words, if only the government did not provide so much help, people would have more kids, who would support their parents in old age. So let’s go back to the 19th century.
Are the authors aware that the median Social Security check is only about $14,000 a year, pretty bare subsistence? With young adults suffering downward mobility, are these Young Guns serious about adding burdens of supporting aging parents as well as raising young children? No wonder voters are skeptical.
If conservatives offer little that’s credible to the anxious middle class, why aren’t liberals just trouncing them?
First, the right has been so successful at blocking liberal initiatives to deliver tangible help that the middle class is not sure which party to trust.
Second, compromises like the Affordable Care Act that do make it through Congress are hobbled by a costly and complex role for commercial middlemen—and seem to represent government inefficiency.
And third, the details are wonky. This exercise is more about slogans and headlines. Only a tiny fraction of voters will notice the holes in the specifics. So despite such empty rhetoric, Republicans are poised to win the midterm elections.
So what’s a liberal to do?
As the party that considers itself responsible stewards of government, Democrats are reluctant to offer proposals that stand no immediate chance of passage. The liberal imagination has been stunted by decades of conservative obstruction and has lost its power to inspire. Most of what ails the middle class requires far more robust policies than are currently in mainstream debate. Liberals should say what they are really for. They might even win more followers.