Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some Praise for the Republican Primary Electorate

I've seen more than a little criticism of the Republican base for its failure to settle upon Romney.  This is in some ways justified but I think it misses an important aspect of the race that I've been observing.

As a follow up from yesterday's post, I'd like to note that I think the Republican base has been very clear about what it wants.  It wants a candidate to provide a viable plan that will allow American's to plan for their old age when they can't work, obtain medical care without being forced into bankruptcy, compete in business with wealthy elites with middle class starting capital, and help their children compete with elites in school without government intervention.

The Republican base's attitude comes out rather strongly in a New York Time's article "Even Critics of the Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It":

“I don’t demand that the government does this for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need the government.”
How about Social Security? And Medicare? Can he imagine retiring without government help?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “No. I don’t know. Not the way we expect to live as Americans.”
This pretty much sums up what I think is animating the right wing and is being expressed in the Tea Party movement.  There is a feeling that the need for government has been produced by flawed policies and that there must be some combination of policies that will allow us to reduce the role of government while still allowing us to live as Americans.

All of the Republican candidates have been sensitive to this need, perhaps the most forceful expression of it was Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan.  Very radical suggestions have been made that the candidates promise will allow us to return to the kind of growth and upward mobility that marked earlier phases of our history.

Despite the grandiosity of these claims, the Republican base eventually becomes disenchanted with each one.  A candidate can promise the moon but once the initial enthusiasm is over the hollowness of these claims is understood.  None of the candidates have so far made a convincing case that there policies will provide what the base is demanding.  The base deserves credit for recognizing the weakness of these arguments and for rejecting each proposal in turn.

As I said yesterday however, I don't believe there is any combination of policies that will provide the base with what it wants.  Social mobility in previous eras was provided either by a sectoral shift out of agriculture towards higher productivity sectors or by a vast expansion in educational obtainment (and this was the result of government intervention).  Neither option is available today.

This makes me strongly doubt that there is any policy solution that will fulfill the base's desire.  But they can't be faulted for not having accepted this, we all grew up being indoctrinated in the idea that the market will naturally provide greater mobility if we let it.  We also hear the same thing from candidates on both sides of the aisle.  Despite the rhetoric, however, I just haven't seen a convincing case made that the rhetoric matches with observable results.


  1. I think this is overly gracious to the Republican field. I think the indecision is a result not of any particular policy issue but rather the popular attribution, disgust breeding apathy breeding disgust. I don't think there is enough difference in what any of the candidates say to make it an issue of policy, and frankly, I'm not sure any electorate is analytical enough to base their decisions on the likelihood of party-standart promises leading to effective macro solutions.

  2. Perhaps I'm over-analyzing it, but I do feel that the base is critical of the actual policy suggestions being made. This doesn't require them to be carefully analyzing policies, it just requires them recognizing that what is being proposed falls far short of the rhetoric. They've been told that Obama's policies are extreme socialist corruptions of the American way and that correcting the country's course will require radically new policies that will change Washington and give us a new way of doing things. They want the equivalent of Ronald Reagan suggesting a radical change from past policies and suggesting new ways to conceive of America and our social and economic problems (set aside for the moment some of the pragmatism of some of Reagan's actual policy and some continuities of his policies, they were framed radically and this is the myth that has passed into history).

    But they're not being given anything approaching this. They've responded to radical rhetoric about what's wrong and the vast changes being needed. But they recognize that all they're being given is warmed over policies that are just slight extensions of policy goals going back to Reagan. I think the base is up to recognizing this, they want, and they've been told to expect, game-changing policies that will make the contrast with Obama and the past stark. What they're getting is the same dish that's been served for 30 years.

    While it definitely requires a bit of establishment analysis for them to realize that proposals like 9-9-9 aren't the game-changer they were hoping for, it is worth noting that they've recognized that they're not getting the radical change from politics as usual that they've been led to expect by all the fiery rhetoric by this year's candidates. Unfortunately, this hasn't yet led them to think about why no one seems to be able to come up with policies that will deliver fairly well articulated demands, but they certainly do seem to be recognizing that no one has yet delivered anything even close to the alternative to Obama that they keep hearing is both possible and more American.