In 2012 the Democratic Party was confident with a new fangled coalition. Barack Obama had won 303 electoral votes. In many of those states the solid Democratic vote came from the wealthy suburbs around Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Philadelphia and from the inner city minority communities. An piece of that coalition were the elite university communities around Palo Alto, Cambridge, Madison, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and Raleigh-Durham.
It was a bizarre bar bell alliance with the very rich and very well-credentialed at one end and the poor, minorities, unmarried women and very young at the other. It was a marriage of convenience. The rich and the well-educated wanted a green agenda and a liberal social environment. They were willing to support welfare programs for the poor in order to build a coalition for their environmental agenda, gay marriage and legal marijuana. The poor get to be subsidized in their poverty with an increased minimum wage, Medicaid funding, food stamps programs, disability payments, and unemployment insurance. White working class people play a minor role in this agenda.
Few Democrats have been mourning the loss of once solid Democratic West Virginia to the Republicans. That was a willing price to pay for shutting down coal mining – a central goal for upscale environmentalists. Nor was there much concern about the loss of Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. On the broader national scale there didn’t even seem to be much concern about the loss of the white male working class vote. They were a shrinking minority. The Democratic Party’s future belonged to the growing non-white vote, the young millennials, the single white females, and the well-educated. Who needed the Keystone Pipeline? In fact, who needed the entire extractive industries? The future was in wind and solar. If by stomping on the fossil fuel production, thousands of hard-hats would lose job opportunities. So what –was the unspoken attitude of the party. White working-class men are unlikely to support wind and solar dreams, gay marriage and gun control.
In 2014 the Democratic Party paid a serious price for such smugness. In key Senate races white men voted overwhelming for the Republican candidates: Arkansas (69%), Kentucky (65%), North Carolina (69%), and Georgia (74%). In two close Senate races outside the South, the vote was strong: Iowa (58%) and Colorado (59%). In the House races Republicans picked up seats in such industrial areas as East St. Louis, Illinois; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Bangor, Maine; and Wilmington, North Carolina. Nationally, the middle class, those households making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, voted 55% Republican.
Democrats saw serious deterioration in their own coalition. As Democratic strategist, Ruy Teixeira, admitted, “the powerful Obama coalition amassed for 2008 and 2012 needs maintenance and upkeep. Base-voter enthusiasm from people of color, young people, and unmarried women will not automatically remain at the high levels of recent presidential elections.” Teixeira is right to be concerned. This time Hispanic men voted 41% Republican; and the Republicans actually won white voters under 30 by 53% to 44%.
To build on these gains, the Republicans must establish themselves as the party of the working and the middle class. As Michael Barone put it, “Democrats see themselves as the party of the future. But their policies are antique. The federal minimum wage dates to 1938, equal pay for women to 1963, access to contraceptives to 1965.” None of these ideas speak to working and middle class voters. For example, subsidized pre-kindergarten and lower rates for college loans affect them at the margin. Infrastructure is hardly a Democratic idea. The interstate highway and the space program began in the Eisenhower Administration. The highway trust fund as long been supported by both parties. The Obama Administration $800 billion stimulus package was loaded with goodies for public employees and numerous pork barrel projects. Was there one major national project that came out of the entire cascade of that money? What was the employment pay off for blue collar workers?
A future economic program should focus on an unleashing the energy sector and incentivizing new technologies in manufacturing. A leaner more focused government can assist by simplifying and reducing the tax burden; thinning out the burdensome regulations developed under Obama; negotiating more trade agreements to expand export markets; creating a tax and regulatory climate that can attract foreign investment. The poor can be assisted with the expansion of the tax credit program tied to work. Community colleges, the great success story of higher education, should be given additional support so that young people can acquire the technical skills the new economy demands. Immigration laws should encourage talented people to come here.
The wealthy should be made to contribute not by raising their taxes, but by cutting their benefits. Tax breaks and subsidies that go to the rich should be eliminated and their entitlement benefits modified. The next Republican presidential nominee should make an assault on crony capitalism. The theme should be clear: reduce government dependency and increase economic opportunity. The image of country club Republicanism should be put to rest. Mitt Romney may have been a very able man. Unfair as it was, he seemed right out of central casting’s idea of such a Republican. Historically, the party has done well with candidates who rose from modest circumstances such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. The candidate’s background should not only reflect a new message; but there actually should be one.