Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's Grand New Party contemplates a future GOP coalition anchored around the working class. In the past, I've been a bit skeptical of this idea. But with #dontgo, Drill Now, and the current economic situation, I'm starting to think that activating such a coalition may be possible -- and in a way that doesn't require the Republican Party to expand government.
Those seeking a coherent narrative of the two parties can find it in something deceptively simple: the politics of price. Republicans want the things you pay for everyday to cost less. Democrats would make them cost more.
Want cheaper energy? Drill now, expand refinery capacity, go nuclear, and diversify into renewables. Republicans want energy sources that are cheap, reliable, and abundant. Democrats want higher prices to force us off fossil fuels to address environmental concerns first, and affordability concerns last.
Want cheaper consumer products? Fight protectionism and forced unionism.
Want cheaper food? Get rid of ethanol subsidies.
Want cheaper health insurance? Get rid of irrational regulations and frivolous lawsuits, and let people buy health insurance across state lines. The left scoffs at more affordable plans that make sense for cost-conscious Gen Y Obama supporters.
Want cheaper government? Cut spending.
Want cheaper tax bills? This is self-explanatory.
Most of this is not new. However, Republicans have largely been unable to capitalize on wanting things to cost less because the country was relatively prosperous and inflation has not been a real concern for a generation. With the country now facing tangible inflation in the food and fuel sectors, an affordability agenda for the working class is now much more salient.
This recession is particularly prone to pro-Republican messaging. Just compare past recessions to this one. The 1980, 1982, and 1990-91 recessions were employment recessions. Unemployment rose to double digits, then 7.5% in 1992. (We are now at 5.5%, pretty close to the 5% "full employment" mark.) The "solution" in those recessions was protectionism to save the auto and steel industries, more unemployment benefits, and jobs programs. 2001-02 was weird because it coincided with shocks to the system like 9/11 and Enron. Economically, this led to policy monstrosities like steel tariffs and Sarbox (which precipitated a decline in U.S. public securities markets).
In 2008, the recession is all about consumers -- be they consumers at the pump, homeowners, or at the grocery store. The recession is hitting all of us a little (rather than just some of us a lot, through lost jobs). This makes it psychologically more damaging, but also more open to a free market populist agenda centered around lower prices for goods in the private economy.
If we can get out from under the dead weight that is 28% Presidential approval, the economic issue environment can be turned against the progressives. Liberalism is built around sacrificing lower prices for social goods like the environment, health care, or economic equality. (If this seems charitable, this is because this is how liberals themselves would describe it.) This is the underpinning of their hatred of low-cost Wal-Mart, their thinly-veiled sense of satisfaction with high energy prices, and their consistent opposition to lower taxes.
An gold-plated agenda that might seem semi-plausible in good times appears laughable in leaner ones, particularly with public attention to prices high as it is.
This is why the reaction to something like domestic oil drilling has been unexpectly strong. The public wants to do something, anything to bring down the price at the pump. This is also why every other ad on the Olympics is about hybrid cars or other kinds of green technology. It's not that the public is greener per se. It's that oil is getting to be so darned expensive that people are looking for alternatives. Hybrids or electric cars will take off once they are demonstrably cheaper than their CO2-spewing counterparts, not when the public has some altruistic environmental epiphany. Why do people buy CFL bulbs? Not because of the environmental benefits (which have always been there) but because of the advertised savings. The American people will not willingly pay for things that cost more.