In developing an agenda, Republicans and conservatives need to figure out what the top challenges facing the country are and how to meet them. But it would be pointless to devise an agenda that could not possibly win over a majority of the voters. And of course the same type of politics that might attract one group of voters will repel another. To generalize wildly: Upper-middle-class, college-educated voters tend to find the Republican party's economics attractive and its social positions less so; vice versa for lower-middle-class voters without college degrees. Which group should the builders of a center-right coalition try hardest to get? I largely agree with Ross Douthat's take on this question, but I would make an additional point.
I don't think many people are arguing that if Republicans just emphasized their social conservatism more, they would attract enough additional lower-middle-class voters to win a majority. The argument that Douthat, his co-author Reihan Salam, and I (among others!) are making is that it is possible to craft conservative economic policies that would serve the interests of this group. These policies need not drive away upper-middle-class voters. The Democrats' promises to help downscale voters have been compatible with an increased appeal to upper-middle-class voters, after all.
And if Republicans can appeal to lower-middle-class voters on domestic policy—health care, taxes, etc.—then they will have less need to make the type of cultural appeals to these voters (we disdain arugula, wave the flag a lot, etc.) that seem to drive some upper-middle-class voters batty. Such an economic agenda might thus help the party directly with the lower middle and indirectly with the upper middle. So I think the party's best bet is to keep, while doubtless modifying in some respects, its social conservatism while searching for free-market economic policies that would help lower-middle-class voters. I am doubtless biased by the fact that this approach would also be best for the country.
I agree with Mr. Ponnuru for the most part. The fact that Catholics and others who share our pro-life views (generally) voted so overwhelmingly for Obama is discouraging and disheartening. I think, though, that the Republican party does need to do a better job of selling economic conservatism to the non-country-club set, and to explain, as Reagan once did, how certain kinds of measures designed to free up capital could help not only huge corporations, but small buisness and family business/family farm owners as well.
Unfortunately, from my perspective--and admittedly economics is not my strong suit--it seems like the recent past has seen economic policies that only rewarded huge corporations, leaving small businesses struggling against what has often seemed like unfair competition just to stay afloat. Mom & Pop businesses have been replaced by chain stores or branches of giant companies, in large part because the cost of doing business has gotten so big, with only the giants able to negotiate with overseas vendors to get the kind of prices that will allow them to make a profit; service industries, too, have seen their small shops or operations closed down by the globalization trends that let the big guys hire twenty-four hour phone coverage in India or China at pennies on the dollar compared to the cost of employing Americans to do the same work.
To put it bluntly, the lower-middle class (and the middle-middle class) American is unlikely to be a cheerleader for globalization. It's because of the growing impact the global marketplace has had on American jobs and American businesses that so many have lost work, or seen small businesses fail. The American worker shouldn't have to compete with a sixteen-year-old girl in China for his livelihood, and many of us are discovering that the cost savings of owning mostly overseas-manufactured goods isn't really worth it in the long run.
When treaties like NAFTA were first passed, the cheerleaders for it spoke derisively of "buggy whip" industries that would, of course, have to relocate to foreign countries. But the American worker would be just fine, because he could always make high-tech goods that couldn't be churned out of sweatshops in Asia, right? Wrong: today, most high-tech goods like computers, televisions, iPods and MP3 players, and the like are also made in Asia or in other third-world nations, while the American manufacturing sector has shrunk further and further.
But knowledge workers--they'd be fine, yes? No: all sorts of programming and technology work has also been outsourced overseas, as have call centers, service jobs, and even newspaper copy editing. In America today a college degree is no guarantee that you'll get a job in any "knowledge" occupation.
Medical workers, then--surely doctors and nurses have no trouble being employed, right? Again, not quite: the number of medical employees brought in on H1-b visas and other programs is staggering.
I could go on, but you get the point.
The thing is, the Republicans have all kinds of reasons why people shouldn't be worried--unemployement is down, the economy is--er, was--sound, and if we're going through some post-Industrial age globalization growing pains, well, that's only to be expected. But the blithe explanations and detailed flow-charts and scholarly articles do not address the truly deep and nightmarish fear many low-to-middle middle class workers face, as they wonder if they'll be able to provide the basics for their families, or if they, too, will see a pink slip barrage laid down at work as their company decides to increase the profit margin by replacing them all with foreign workers.
These people, by and large, hate globalization, and everything associated with it. They see it as destroying their communities, draining their bank accounts, depriving them of decent employemnt and good wages, and making it harder and harder for them to stay afloat in a sea of rising costs and dwindling hope for the future.
And Obama promised them hope.
You may think he's lying; I may be pretty sure he is, and that he can't deliver on even a tenth of his promises to make people's lives better. But Republicans who brushed aside the economic worries of the middle class often gave a "let them eat cake" impression about it all, and insisted that once the kinks were worked out, why, globalization would mean more money for everybody! And if the crowds heard them murmur "especially the CEOs and those already wealthy," well, it might be that they slipped here and there, and actually said that sort of thing a time or two.
If the Republicans ever want to win a presidential election again, they need to step back and take a good, long, hard look at the costs of globalization--not the bottom line profit costs, but the human costs. Because telling a man who now works at Wal-mart that it's really a good thing that the candy factory or furniture factory or steel mill where he used to earn good money and keep his dignity is now located in Guadalajara just isn't going to cut it, anymore.