Thursday, February 18, 2016

To Gain a Winning Coalition, Address Abiding Challenges

Over at The Weekly Standard, former Reagan advisor and erstwhile New Jersey Republican Senate nominee Jeffrey Bell argues that key to the rises of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has been the fact that they have both offered solutions to the economic challenges facing many Americans (even if these solutions might be mistaken at times):
Most conservatives believe Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have wrong solutions to the stagnation in wages and job creation that has marked the American economy since 2000. But Trump and Sanders have proven better vote-getters than conservative candidates because, politically speaking, having wrong answers to a real and widely felt evil is better than offering no answers at all.

The last several Republican debates have been remarkable for the virtual absence of discussion of economic policy, other than Trump’s attacks on establishment lobbyists and donors and demands for "better deals" with our trading partners. It's true that economic-related questioning by the various debate moderators has been minimal, but that doesn't explain the non-Trump candidates' failure to inject the issue on their own initiative.
Bell argues that Trump's rivals in the GOP will have to argue more forcefully how their policies can address economic turmoil and speak to the needs of voters who feel left behind.  Bell's argument that conservatives could use some imagination in order to revitalize their approach to economic policy has been echoed by other writers, including Michael Brendan Dougherty, Tucker Carlson, and Rod Dreher.

In these remarks, Bell hits on one of the key ways conservatives can channel insurgent populist energies: by offering limited-government, market-oriented policies that will encourage economic uplift for working- and middle-class Americans.  On some issues, conservatives already have policies that might do so (such as an expanded child-tax credit), but they might have to do more to put these policies front and center.

On other issues, Republicans might need to shift in favor of a more forward-thinking reform.  For instance, the approach to "comprehensive immigration reform" favored by many Beltwayers involves more guest-worker programs and policies that would encourage even more illegal immigration.  Reform-oriented Republicans could instead offer an approach to immigration reform that ends the abuse of guest-worker programs and creates a legal-immigration system that strengthens opportunity for both the native born and recent immigrants.

Bell notes that developing a pro-opportunity economic message will probably be important for Republicans if they hope to win in 2016, so the issue of economic anxiety is not simply a matter for the primary race, either.

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