The Elephant Vanishes

orb amidon george bush The Elephant VanishesGRAND NEW PARTY: HOW REPUBLICANS CAN WIN THE WORKING CLASS AND SAVE THE AMERICAN DREAM
By Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam
Doubleday, 244 pages, $23.95

To their immense credit, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two dynamic young conservative thinkers, freely admit the comprehensive failure of George W. Bush’s so-called "compassionate conservatism." They acknowledge that the blue-collar voters who were supposed to benefit from his policies are feeling more beleaguered now than at any time since the recessionary 1970s. In Grand New Party, their intriguing outline for Republican revitalization, they don’t even bother trying to say something good about our 42nd president. (Efforts in that direction are making many of their colleagues sound as desperate as senators caught poking their feet beneath a toilet stall divider.) Coming across more like indignant liberal bloggers than neocon wonks, Messrs. Douthat and Salam make it clear that "the buck stops with Bush himself, who articulated a vision of a working-class conservatism but failed to follow through."

It could have been so different. If Mr. Bush had been at all serious, he might have used the vast political capital bestowed on him after 9/11 to push through social programs that would have finished the political realignment that began with the collapse of the New Deal in the 1960s and 1970s. If he’d only spent a little less time dirt-biking at Crawford, he could have built a streamlined federal government whose ministrations created self-sufficiency among the working class, not dependency; one that, in the words of Ronald Reagan, was designed to "work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back." Instead, the working class—and everyone else—got Katrina, Enron and Fallujah.

And yet, according to the authors, there’s still time for the Republicans to salvage their future. The key is to understand the peculiar anxieties of America’s contemporary working class—Sam’s Club voters, as the authors call them—and tailor a new agenda to their needs. According to Messrs. Douthat and Salam, Sam’s Club voters are non-college-educated but not impoverished, socially conservative but also convinced that government should play a role in their lives. They’re outraged at the sight of people in New Orleans on welfare, but even more outraged by what happened to these same people during Katrina. Most of all, they’re worried—about health care, college tuition, vanishing jobs, unchecked immigration and rising crime. Win them, and a permanent majority can be born, just as F.D.R. was able to create a 50-year supremacy for Congressional Democrats by speaking to the hopes and fears of their grandparents.

For Messrs. Douthat and Salam, the cornerstone of this conservative revival is the family. It should be noted that they’re not indulging in the reactionary rhetoric of the Falwellian troglodytes here, but simply recognizing that members of the working class fare much better when part of a nuclear family than when they go it alone. Anticipating howls of outrage from progressives, they point out the current "marriage gap," in which many of those doing the howling—college-educated, upper-middle-class members of the new meritocracy—are far more likely to live in long-lasting, child-bearing marriages than the working class. "Pick a social indicator," they assert, "and you’ll find that parents and children alike do far better in stable families."

Having established the primacy of family, the authors then float a raft of policies that sails into the tricky waters between conservative and progressive doctrine. Take employment. Although Messrs. Douthat and Salam are contemptuous of welfare in its Great Society incarnation, they also understand that some fairly hefty government incentives are going to be needed to keep the working poor from sinking into an underclass. Their answer is a program of wage subsidies, wherein "less-educated single men with low-paying jobs make ends meet, thereby making them more desirable marriage partners. Given the right boost, poor young men could become working-class fathers" and, presumably, Sam’s Club voters with a lifelong fealty to the G.O.P. In education, they moot a modified voucher system in which working-class children will be granted more credit than their more affluent neighbors as they search for a good school, so that "poor kids, who will have the most money strapped to their backs, would attract the most attention from entrepreneurial principals eager to expand their bailiwick."

If those schemes sound like Clintonian triangulation from the right, it’s because that’s what they are. In fact, once you get past the liberal-bashing rhetoric, and the occasional fuzzy talk about "private virtue and cultural solidarity," it’s hard to see what’s so conservative about the authors’ agenda, or at least what makes it uniquely Republican. At times, it seems as if the spendthrift liberal bogeyman they conjure to stand in opposition to their suggestions has a lot more to do with the perfervid fantasies of National Review subscribers than what’s actually going on at the DNC.

Take their idea about fighting global warming, which involves creating "an agency dedicated to funding alternative-energy research" carried out by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The authors claim that this approach "is vastly preferable to the sort of massive, growth-killing regulatory regime promoted by the left," ignoring the fact that Al Gore has been talking about finding market-driven, technological solutions to global warming for years now.

In the end, these aspersions seem like nothing more than playing to the right-wing gallery in order to sell a program that is going to be a lot easier for Nancy Pelosi to stomach than Mitch McConnell. Post-Goldwater Republican strategy has never been about constructive engagement with the working class, but rather about scaring the hell out of it, whether the object of fear be mushroom clouds, hippies, school busing, welfare queens, Willie Horton, married gays or sleeper cells. Asking politicians weaned on 40 years of fear to change tack is a tall order, especially when it’s been so bloody effective.

What’s more, whatever else Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam are talking about here, they’re proposing spending tax dollars—a lot of them, at least in the short term. They’re also talking about getting the federal government deeply involved in the lives of working-class citizens, whether it involves bolstering their wages, providing their children with means-tested school vouchers or paying for their health care once their medical bills pass a certain threshold. Attractive ideas, perhaps, though after eight years of rudderless drift under the banner of compassionate conservatism, it’s hard to see how any kind of real majority is going to rally under a Republican flag anytime soon.

Unless, of course, it’s the red flag of fear.

Stephen Amidon’s most recent novel is Human Capital (Picador). He can be reached at books@observer.com.