The Dream of a Republican New Deal

A mural by Charles Ward at the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Trenton.

Republicans in Congress are in a bind. As they look to the 2018 midterm elections, they see a Democratic blue wave, energized by opposition to President Trump, poised to sweep away their majorities. The announcement that Paul Ryan, the House speaker, will retire confirms, and will contribute to, the coming electoral catastrophe.

Many Republican officeholders would like to distance themselves from Mr. Trump, yet they can’t as long as his approval rating from their voters remains sky-high. But these legislators have an alternative: They can rally around Mr. Trump’s 2016 vision of a Republican Party no longer bound by unpopular conservative dogma. They could even support a Trump New Deal.

Despite Mr. Trump’s considerable flaws as a presidential candidate, he effectively diagnosed the reasons the Republican Party is widely disliked, even by its own voters. It has become the party of the white working class — six out of 10 Republicans are now whites without a college degree — but it has done next to nothing to address the terrible problems that disproportionately affect that class.

These afflictions include economic stagnation, the opioid epidemic, family dissolution, high rates of work force nonparticipation and the “deaths of despair” that have driven down overall life expectancy in the United States for the past two years. The impact of these problems is greatest in the “left-behind” rural and nonurban areas that overwhelmingly vote Republican.

Mr. Trump also recognized that the principal reason for this disconnection is that the party’s penchant for tax-cutting has devolved from a policy preference into a sacred cult, unconnected to reality or anything resembling fiscal conservatism. Revenue-draining cuts inevitably starve the public services that the aging and economically insecure white working class increasingly depends on. Popular support for the teachers’ strikes in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia in recent weeks indicates that even solidly Republican states are turning against this kind of anti-government economic doctrine.

The example of Kansas shows that Republicans are capable of curbing the radicalism in their ranks. Gov. Sam Brownback’s “real live experiment” in reckless tax cuts led to economic stagnation; a collapse in state revenues; and hugely unpopular cutbacks in public services that damaged not just schools but also hospitals, highways, law enforcement agencies, programs for the disabled and children in foster care. In 2016, moderate Republicans replaced dozens of Mr. Brownback’s conservative allies in the Kansas Legislature and, a year later, voted to restore state revenues over his veto.

Mr. Ryan, who served as Mr. Brownback’s legislative director when Mr. Brownback was a senator, was the Republican Party’s most prominent cheerleader for the Ayn Rand-inspired idea that society’s “makers” should be lavished with tax cuts while its “takers” should be deprived of a social safety net. The downfall of Ryanism, and the rise of Trumpism, indicates that the decades-long domination of the Republican Party by ideological conservatism is finally giving way to an outlook that, for good or ill, better reflects the party’s changed base.

The white working class clearly wants to protect and build upon the public sector, not destroy it. In a comprehensive recent study of voter attitudes, Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, found that Republican voters are still inflamed by cultural issues but are nowhere near as hostile to government as most political analysts imagine. A majority of Republicans support government action to ensure access to quality health care and provide a decent standard of living for people unable to work. A substantial minority favors reducing income differences and helping families pay for child care and college. The anti-government agenda pushed by Republican megadonors like the Koch brothers simply doesn’t resonate with rank-and-file party voters.

It’s no secret that the interests of the party’s donor class have been sharply at odds with those of its base. But political parties ultimately have to deliver concrete benefits to their core constituents if they want to retain their support. And politicians have to respond to the needs and hopes of their voters, not just pander to their fears and hatreds.

Desperation focuses the mind. As the elections loom, Republicans must resist the impulse to become full-time campaigners instead of legislators. That would only reinforce the public perception of Congress as a dysfunctional mess and incumbents as swamp-dwellers more concerned with their political survival (and self-enrichment) than with the national welfare.

Instead, the party should approach the elections under the banner of an ambitious program to bring economic revival to the working class. The starting point for such a program would be Mr. Trump’s campaign-trail commitment to rebuild our decaying national infrastructure — including the roads, schools, hospitals and other civic assets that have been squeezed by conservative cutbacks.

A Trump New Deal could also include other elements with strong appeal to working-class voters, such as vigorous support for universal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare (as opposed to means-tested programs that benefit only the poor), robust wage subsidies, a generous child care tax credit and apprenticeship programs linked to specific high-skilled jobs. Republicans might also consider a national version of a California proposal to make housing more affordable.

A Republican campaigning on the back of a Trump New Deal could sell himself or herself as someone who shares the values of voters in the economically ravaged American heartland but who also has a real program to address their problems. It would be a lot more persuasive than just touting the magic of tax cuts.

The president would relish an initiative built around the most popular parts of his agenda; he might even find it in his self-interest to call Congress into a special session to pass it. Republicans running for re-election could present themselves as loyal to Mr. Trump’s overarching goals while avoiding the president’s toxic tweets and scandals. Democrats would be reluctant to give Mr. Trump a political win heading into the elections, but equally reluctant to offer him a legitimate opportunity to paint them as partisan obstructionists. Entrenched special interests would be outraged by any Republican move toward the economic center, but the Koch brothers and other big donors would still work for Republican majorities to supply the regulatory relief and conservative justices they crave.

The idea of a New Deal advanced by Republicans, even as unorthodox a Republican as Mr. Trump, sounds like alternate-reality science fiction. But historically the Republican Party has not been an organization with a fixed identity. Its transformation into a conservative ideological force began to take root only in the 1960s and took half a century to complete. It’s hardly impossible for the party to move toward the economic center while continuing to embrace Trump-style cultural populism.

Political scientists who specialize in what’s called “realignment theory” point out that America’s two main political parties have flipped constituencies and ideologies in the past. Before the New Deal, the Democrats were predominantly a rural, socially conservative agrarian party allied with a number of urban political machines, while Republicans were advocates of powerful government and the party of intellectuals, African-Americans and the native-born working class.

A reborn Republican Party with economic policies oriented toward the working class isn’t beyond imagining. If it succeeded in restoring working-class prosperity, that might also lower the temperature of the culture wars, since economically secure people tend to be less prone to outrage and scapegoating. Such a party might even have considerable appeal to minority voters who currently have little reason to consider it.

In all likelihood, Mr. Trump is too divisive and ideologically inconsistent a leader to create a Republican version of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. But the ongoing transformation of the party under Mr. Trump points toward a future when it is more attuned to the economic needs of working-class Americans — and more popular than the conservative party that faces ruinous defeat in November.

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