Grand New Party and Reagan
My most persistent problem with Douthat and Salam’s analysis continues to be their awkward defenses of racially divisive campaign strategies, in large part because they continue to bring it back into their arguments. Their analyses of Republican politics and their criticisms of liberal politicians, however, continue to be sound. One of the most compelling areas of potential criticism comes in their brief summary of Ronald Reagan’s fiscal conservatism:
“Meanwhile, what spending cuts there were couldn’t cover the cost of the Reagan defense buildup, resulting in the large-scale deficits that would become a recurring feature of Republican administrations. These deficits were not nearly so damaging to the country’s fiscal health as many liberals claimed [...] and there’s no question that the tax cuts Reagan enacted changed the economy for the better, breaking the stagnant statism of the Ford and Carter years and producing the economic boom of the mid-1980s. But the tax cuts also proved the more expansive supply-siders wrong: Lower tax rates, even in an overtaxed country, couldn’t pay for themselves. This contradiction forced Reagan to roll back some of his initial cuts–he raised taxes four times between 1982 and 1984, albeit never back to 1970s levels–and then to accept, in the sweeping Tax Reform of 198, increases in corporate taxes that many right-wingers considered anathema.”
This reading of Reagan’s presidency is a little bit contrarian in a Republican world wherein the man walks on water and never deviates from orthodoxy, but Republicans have altered Reagan's legacy to suit their own ideas rather than the other way around. This interpretation opens up several interesting avenues for Douthat and Salam to explore. They argue that modern conservatives learned the wrong lessons from Reagan; buying wholesale his hard-right, small government philosophy, and ignoring the pragmatism with which he governed. This leads them to a corresponding criticism of liberals of the era:
Meanwhile, recognizing that what plagued the working class wasn’t poverty but a lack of security, opportunity, and cultural confidence, their brightest minds tried to turn the Democratic Party’s emphasis from redistribution [...] toward a “civil liberalism” that would promote a more socially egalitarian society – a country in which both rich and poor would have equal access to education and healthcare.
This is not the first place where Douthat and Salam are careful to distinguish “security” as a primary concern of the blue-collar voters their book examines. They are frequently careful to distinguish the “working class” from the “very poor” by arguing that the working class voters of the 1960s on were often quite comfortably employed. It was not money that was their primary concern, but security. A tax cut that gave them an extra $2,000 each year would be marginally useful but would not mitigate a sudden job loss, serious injury, or stroke of bad luck that could be utterly devastating. Those with more means than the “very poor” were concerned not with money but with security against catastrophe.
Douthat and Salam’s distinction between the “working class” and the “very poor” grates each time I read it, in large part because of the implication that the very poor do not work, but also because their distinction between security and salary is important not just for those with means but also for those "very poor." Catastrophe is compounded by poverty and the income of those living in poverty would have to double over and over before it reached a point at which they could guard against catastrophe privately.
Their abandonment of the “very poor” to the Democratic Party when their ideas could very possibly offer them a means of appealing to those in poverty is odd. I suspect it has something to do with their assumptions about which subsets of each socio-economic bracket would be inclined to vote for either party. Their discussions of voting patterns in the Reagan era, in fact, explicitly refer to the “white working class” that formed Reagan’s base.
Perhaps discussing the broader appeal of Reagan’s ideas to groups other than the white working class “Reagan Democrats” would be of interest. More likely it would raise difficult questions.