Building a Durable GOP for 2016 and Beyond

Last year, former New York Governor George Pataki said, “We have just seen the Democratic Party switch from being a liberal party with a few conservatives to a leftist party with some liberals.”  

Had the GOP recognized that switch in 2012, there might be a Republican president today.

Somewhere toward the end of Barack Obama’s first term, “from-the-cradle” Democratic working people began to find themselves in a party that had turned decidedly leftist. Voters who had been imbued from childhood with the reality and the myth of JFK, or who experienced the boom years of a relatively moderate Bill Clinton, found themselves in a Democrat Party whose leaders’ agenda often offended their patriotic, political, religious and personal sensibilities. 

But instead of reaching out to these abandoned voters, the 2012 GOP reinforced the Democrats’ caricature of Republicans as selfish, insensitive capitalists -- heroes to Ayn Rand fans, but “Gordon Gekko” wannabes to much of the rest of the electorate. The GOP counter to President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” theme emphasized the success and determination of entrepreneurs and business owners, but said nothing of -- or to -- wage earners, civil servants, first responders and union members who make up much of the block of cradle Democrats.

So, on Election Day, 2012, Barack Obama turned out his most reliable Democrat base: better-off urban and suburban college-educated liberals and the government-dependent poor.

But middle-income workers who had suffered through four years of the Obama economy and foreign policy mismanagement -- the cradle Democrats who recognized that their party had abandoned the values of working people to embrace the “Occupy Wall Street” and the third-trimester abortion crowd -- stayed home.  Based on turnout patterns of lower-income, Northern, rural voters -- “Ross Perot voters” --- it’s reasonable to think that those voters stayed home because they had no one to vote for.

The exit polls from the Congressional elections last November show that 43% of workers earning less than $50,000 -- laborers and lower-wage workers -- and 49% of voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 -- skilled workers, college-educated staffers and middle managers -- voted Republican. Of those who said their family’s financial situation was “worse”, 67% voted Republican. (Those who said their situation remained the same were evenly split, 49% each to Democrat and Republican.)

But of the 63% of the electorate who said the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy, a staggering 64% voted Democrat! The principal mission of the GOP going into 2016 should be to disabuse those voters -- 40% of the electorate -- that their economic system favors the wealthy and the contributor class over them.

Republican messaging needs to be recalibrated to talk to working people, not just in the quadrennial presidential campaign, but day-to-day.  The party needs to appeal to peoples’ hopes and dreams, and to those of their children and even their children’s children. Republicans should welcome workers and laborers -- essential components of Ronald Reagan’s winning coalition -- into the party leadership at all levels, then back up our “everyman” rhetoric with action to ensure continued GOP predominance.

A Party that is “Pro-Commerce”, not “Pro-Business”

First, the GOP should rebrand itself as “Pro-Commerce” instead of “Pro-Business”.  

Being “pro-business” conjures up images of fat-cat, cigar-puffing bankers and CEO’s out of the Gilded Age; carefully coifed “millionaires and billionaires,” in Democrat parlance, dressed in bespoke suits and French cuffs with toady politicians at the ready to serve at their beck and call.  It implies the GOP tilts in favor of businesses over consumers, workers, civil servants, first responders, union members, and even the small entrepreneurs and niche businesses that compete with bigger businesses.

Being “pro-commerce”, on the other hand, imbues the GOP with inherently conservative notions of a free and fair marketplace and equality before government. It implies that a Republican government won’t cater to the “crony capitalists” of the contributor base over consumers, workers or unions.  “Pro-commerce” says that people who work outdoors, in factories or the anonymous drudgery of an office cubicle will be given the chance to make their way for themselves and their families according to whatever they decide is success. 

“Pro-commerce” also speaks to a more pragmatic trade policy than the party has previously followed. In a country with a goods trade deficit of over $66 billion, a “pro-commerce” GOP can make clear to the electorate and to the world that it embraces Ronald Reagan’s brand of “free but fair trade.” It says that illegal trading practices -- like “beggar thy neighbor” currency manipulation, foreign competitors’ thefts of intellectual property, and the disingenuous exploitation of U.S. trade treaties by foreign interlopers that aren’t signatories -- simply won’t be tolerated by a Republican White House or Congress.

Build the GOP from Within the USA

Next, to grow the party rapidly, GOP strategists should target U.S. Citizens instead of the undocumented and foreign workers with whom they compete.

Some Republican strategists and leaders seem to think they can eventually build out the party’s base among currently undocumented aliens and H-1B visa holders. But many of those undocumented aliens will be competing for jobs that low-skilled, less-educated Americans -- including legal immigrants -- need to eke out a living. Take those jobs away, and you will have given those American workers a choice of either poverty or the public dole.  In the process, you’ll create a whole lot more Democrats dependent on government -- Democrats who will turn out on Election Day.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants low-skilled, low-wage immigrant workers to fill what they call “jobs Americans won’t do.” Admittedly, there are jobs like that. But there are probably far less than the Chamber claims.  With teen unemployment at nearly 19 percent, surely there must be American teenagers who can and will bag groceries, deliver prescriptions, sweep floors, and clean toilets, even at minimum wage. They can even work in kitchens and as bus-boys. Even American adults can be counted on to drive a combine, a hay bailer, or a back-hoe, if the price is right.

Among higher skilled positions, reported abuse of the H-1B “temporary” visa program tends to discourage American young people from obtaining degrees in fields that lead to high skilled, high value-added jobs. Young people know that low-wage, highly skilled workers from the global labor pool, H-1B visas in hand, will keep U.S. wages low in the very skills -- Computer Science, Engineering and Chemistry – that would otherwise allow American innovation and technological superiority to create tomorrow’s economy and the base of middle-income workers required to support it.

Repositioning the GOP as a party that appeals to middle-income working people and middle managers, as well as entrepreneurs, senior executives, and investors, is ultimately an appeal to our countrymen’s long-term aspirations and ambitions -- a call to our future, as it were -- over the next quarter’s profit or the value of investment portfolios.  It could make the GOP the embodiment of the uniquely American notion that hard work, diligent effort, and personal sacrifice will be rewarded.

It’s a message Republicans -- and Americans -- would embrace to remake the national political landscape.  Long-term, it can ensure Republican political hegemony for much of this century.

J.G. Collins is the managing director of The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, a firm providing communications, polling, and advisory services to businesses, investors, governments, nonprofits, and candidates.