The Republican Challenge

Jay Cost

Summer 2011

The 2010 congressional elections revealed an electorate more inclined to vote for Republicans than any we have seen in decades. Given the GOP's major mid-term victories, conventional wisdom now holds that, if the electorate shows up in 2012 in a similar mood, Republicans will win the presidency and control of the Senate, and retain a significant House majority.

But is this wisdom correct? Or was 2010 a not-to-be-repeated political event? The answer depends, of course, on just what caused the Republican surge last November, and on how the two parties understand (and respond to) voters' ongoing concerns. Republicans, for their part, tend to think that the cause of their landslide was the excessive growth of government over the past two years; they are therefore intent on showing the public that the Democrats wish to continue that growth, while Republicans are serious about restraining it. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to believe that last year's election turned out as it did because the economy was very weak; they are now pinning their hopes on a robust recovery.

To be sure, the economic downturn did play a role in shaping public attitudes in 2010, as the Democrats assert. The economy was flat through 2008, and contracted by 2.6% in 2009 — the worst one-year performance since the transition from wartime to peacetime in 1946. Nor are the Republicans completely off-base: The manner in which the Democrats responded to the recession did contribute to the size of the GOP's gains. In 2008, the American people handed Barack Obama and the Democrats the keys to the kingdom, trusting that they would tackle the grave economic challenges of the moment. Once in power, however, the Democrats passed a wasteful stimulus bill and increased domestic discretionary spending to unprecedented levels. They also passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: a law that creates a new, unsustainable entitlement program precisely as the nation's finances are about to collapse under the weight of our existing obligations.

Still, neither the recession nor the Democrats' expansion of government in its wake accounts entirely for what happened last November. Political scientists who attempt to predict elections build models that take economic statistics as their starting points, and those models failed to anticipate the size of the Republican surge in 2010. It was not just the depth of the recession, but rather the prospect of a profound, radical, long-term transformation of our economy, that made the public extremely uneasy last year. And it was not just excess spending, but the very character of today's Democratic Party, that caused the left to be so ill-equipped to resolve the grave challenges facing our nation.

If Republicans are to convince the public that they can address those challenges, they must see what the Democrats have missed, and why. They should also remember that today's independent voters are less concerned about Washington's inability to curb the growth of government than they are about Washington's inability to spur the growth of wages.

An enormous opening thus exists for the GOP to become, again, not only the party of fiscal prudence but the party of prosperity and material improvement. In crafting their message — indeed, their whole identity as a party — around bread-and-butter issues, Republicans can reassure a storm-tossed electorate while also demonstrating their commitment to improving the circumstances of the average American family. In 2012, that won't be an easy task — but fortunately for Republicans, this combination is just what their party has a tradition of delivering.


First, however, it is necessary for Republicans to understand precisely where their political opponents went astray, lest they read the wrong lessons from 2010. Why did the Democrats pursue such a self-destructive path in the wake of their 2008 victory?

After all, the Democratic Party hasn't always behaved this way when entrusted with power in an economic crisis. When Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933, he attacked the economic problem head on. In particular, he was interested in getting people back to work and getting more money into their pockets. The Agricultural Adjustment Act — the first major piece of New Deal legislation, enacted in May 1933 — looks very peculiar to modern eyes, as it paid farmers to slaughter their pigs and leave their land unplanted. But Roosevelt's goal was to revitalize farm wages. The National Industrial Recovery Act, enacted a month later, looks similarly antiquated with its blunt and heavy-handed regulations. The idea, however, was to negotiate a grand bargain between business, government, and labor to stabilize the economy and get people back to work. Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration were all about helping idle citizens channel their energies into productive endeavors. There were relief efforts, of course, but F.D.R. had an interest in keeping the dole to a minimum and getting the country moving again. The more memorable liberal reforms of the era — the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act — did not come until after the economy was already growing again, and voters were starting to notice an improvement in their own well-being. This kind of growth- and wage-oriented liberalism was the hallmark of the Democratic Party for the 30 years that followed.

But in the 1960s, the Democratic Party began to change. One of the main causes was the rise of what political scientist Jeffrey Berry has called the "post-material left" — a predominantly white, comfortable, middle-class movement that was focused on quality-of-life issues rather than on raising average Americans' standards of living. This faction of the party had its roots in groups like the amateur Democratic Clubs of California and was nurtured by the idealists who fell in love with Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. But it was in the '60s that it really grew into its own, thanks to the rise of the environmental movement, the feminist movement, and the consumer-rights movement. These blocs had ideological similarities to more radical New Left outfits, like the Students for a Democratic Society, in that they felt that American middle-class life was spiritually and culturally alienating. But unlike the radicals, they operated in establishment circles.

Meanwhile, there occurred a sharp decline in the power of organized industrial labor, which had long been the force behind the Democratic Party's focus on bread-and-butter issues. As industrial labor declined, non-industrial labor rose to take its place — white-collar, government unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the National Education Association, as well as gray-collar outfits like the Service Employees International Union. Like the post-material left, these groups have often been insulated from the ebbs and flows of the private economy, and so their circumstances have been different from those of many working families.

For a long time, these left-leaning groups were in competition with other factions of the party. Democrats have thus experienced some intense intra-party squabbles over the years — most notably between supporters of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey in 1968, of Edmund Muskie and George McGovern in 1972, and of Gary Hart and Walter Mondale in 1984.

The last major squabble between the factions spanned the Clinton years, and carried real political costs for Democrats. Clinton should be remembered as the most successful Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt, not least because his tenure saw robust economic growth that helped the party overcome the negative image that had burdened it since Jimmy Carter's disastrous presidency. Clinton also brought economically and culturally moderate suburban voters on the outskirts of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles into the coalition. He achieved these feats by repeatedly disappointing the more leftist factions of the party. He cut taxes. He reformed welfare. He championed the North American Free Trade Agreement. He declared that the era of big government was over, and worked with congressional Republicans to deliver a balanced budget.

And what did Clinton get from his party in return for these politically successful efforts? A fairly harsh rebuffing of his legacy. In the 2000 Democratic primary, former senator Bill Bradley challenged Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, from the left, falling only a few thousand votes short of beating him in New Hampshire. Then Ralph Nader — one of the original leaders of the post-material left — ran against Gore in the general election, arguing that Clinton's vice president was indistinguishable from George W. Bush. Nearly 3% of the country — coming almost exclusively from the post-material left — agreed with Nader, enabling him to play spoiler and very likely delivering the election to Bush.

Then, of course, came Barack Obama. An intellectual from the progressive oasis of Chicago's Hyde Park and a Saul Alinsky-influenced "community organizer" with roots in ACORN, Obama had the support of groups like the SEIU. In other words, he was an avatar for the post-materialist factions of the Democratic Party. Perhaps the best stand-in for Clinton's legacy — the former president's wife, running for president in her own right — rallied the old Democratic forces, like the white working-class voters of the industrial Midwest, who had been central to the coalition since the 1930s. Nonetheless, she failed to win the party's nomination.

Hillary Clinton's defeat marked the decisive victory of the post-material left in Democratic Party politics. Especially telling was the behavior of the so-called "super delegates" in the party's 2008 convention. Super delegates are senior party officials — the core of the establishment — who were given automatic delegate status to the convention in the early 1980s to stop exactly the kind of left-wing insurgency that Obama represented. Yet in 2008, they were precisely the people who swung the nomination to Obama. The anti-establishment, in other words, had become the establishment. And once in Washington, Barack Obama — and his de facto prime minister, Nancy Pelosi (another symbol of this new, "progressive" Democratic Party) — did exactly what their voters wanted them to do: They extended the reach of government, paying only lip service to curbing the deficit or spurring economic growth.

This change within the Democratic Party explains why its leaders followed the course they did in 2009 and 2010. It explains why they suffered the losses they did last year. And it also explains their behavior in subsequent budget battles — for instance, threatening a government shutdown over $50 billion in cuts amid a budget deficit of $1.5 trillion. The Democrats' dominant constituent groups want to spend and spend, regulate and regulate. Economic growth and fiscal responsibility are secondary concerns at best. There has long been a faction of the Democratic Party that has thought this way, but today, for the first time, that faction is very much in charge.

We should therefore not expect the Democrats to deal seriously with the budget deficit (unless they can impose a solution that dramatically raises taxes). Today's Democratic Party is thoroughly ill-equipped to understand and address the fiscal and economic challenges that most concern working Americans. This means that addressing the nation's economic problems will, by default, become the responsibility of Republicans. The result is that, if America is to have any hope of resolving our fiscal crisis and restarting economic growth, the GOP will have to persuade voters that it deserves significant majorities in Washington.


Succeeding in that mission will not be easy. The Republican Party will have to perform better at the polls than it has at any point since Ronald Reagan's tenure, and provide a plausible and practical policy agenda for this difficult time. And essential to both of these tasks is acquiring a solid understanding of what it really means to be a Republican. Such an understanding would draw on the best traditions of the party and its intellectual forerunners — stretching back to a view about the purpose of the national government that Republicans owe to their Whig Party predecessors and, even before the Whigs, to Alexander Hamilton.

Students of American government are thoroughly familiar with James Madison's justification for the national government in The Federalist. Madison saw factionalism sown into human nature itself, and thought a large republic of divided powers would check its dangers. But Madison's co-author Alexander Hamilton articulated a very different justification. In Federalist No. 11, he celebrated the effect a national government could have on commercial activity, writing:

An unrestrained intercourse between the States themselves will advance the trade of each by an interchange of their respective productions, not only for the supply of reciprocal wants at home, but for exportation to foreign markets. The veins of commerce in every part will be replenished, and will acquire additional motion and vigor from a free circulation of the commodities of every part...

Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!

In other words, Hamilton saw strong economic relations between the states — facilitated by the national government — as a way of binding their fortunes together and creating a great and prosperous whole. Each state would fit in with the others to form a national economy, which would benefit all participants, and in turn form a distinctive national interest.

This view of America's potential — that a national identity and purpose could be found through shared commercial prosperity — was later expounded by the grandfather of Republicanism, Henry Clay. Clay came to Congress in 1806 an ardent Jeffersonian, intent on destroying the Bank of the United States. But the experience of the War of 1812 changed his view. The government did not have a central bank from which to borrow money, so it could not raise adequate funds to finance the young nation's growth and development. As a result, America headed into the war without much of a skilled standing army and lacking reliable roads to transport men and goods for the war effort. The country failed to accomplish any of its primary goals for entering the war, and only Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans salvaged the national pride.

This experience led Clay to change his mind about the Bank of the United States, and ultimately to promote what he called the American System — a phrase reminiscent of Hamilton. Clay and his allies (who ended up forming the Whig Party) envisioned another central bank to manage the currency, along with protective tariffs to help nascent American industry (with the surplus revenue to be spent on internal improvements, like better roads and canals, that would help farmers get their products to market). In other words, Clay advanced a public policy centered on growth and prosperity, from which all factions in the country would benefit.

The nation rejected that approach in the 1830s, preferring instead the anti-bank populism of Andrew Jackson — the first Democratic president. But during and after the Civil War, the new Republican Party, made up mostly of former Whigs, enacted a version of Clay's program — including tariffs, government sponsorship of the railroads (through the Pacific Railway Acts), and a sound currency built on the gold standard. The Republicans also aimed to help Americans improve their condition through higher education: Through the Morrill Land Grant Acts, GOP lawmakers gave rise to colleges devoted to "teach[ing] such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."

In the 1890s, it was the Republicans, led by William McKinley of Ohio, who defended this post-war regime against William Jennings Bryan. Voters supported the GOP's resistance to Bryan's agrarian populism, helping to make McKinley — who won more than 51% of the vote — the first majority president since Ulysses S. Grant, and beginning an extended period of Republican dominance on the national scene. The GOP won six of the next eight presidential elections (winning an all-out majority in each), and the two Democratic wins — in 1912 and 1916 — were plurality victories. The slogan of McKinley's re-election campaign in 1900 — "the full dinner pail" — offered a straightforward and compelling formulation of the Republican appeal in this period: The economic prosperity of the country was good for all citizens, and thus it was in the interest of all to support the Republicans' pro-growth policies.

The Great Depression knocked Republicans out of the majority, and also presented them with an identity crisis. Because the Republicans controlled both Congress and the presidency at the time of the economic collapse, they were blamed for the calamity, as New York governor Franklin Roosevelt swept into power in 1932 with a House majority of more than 300 seats. So badly was the Republican reputation damaged by the Depression that, 16 years later, Harry Truman would invoke its memory to rail against Republican economic policies.

No longer was the GOP self-evidently the party of prosperity — of the full dinner pail. So what was it? For a time, it was simply the party of "no," joining with conservative Southern Democrats to block the agenda of liberal Northern Democrats. It was the Republicans who joined with Southern Democrats to block, for instance, Harry Truman's "Fair Deal" (which included proposals for subsidized health coverage and new welfare and housing programs, among others) in 1949-50. But this left Republicans aimless and adrift for decades. One need only look at the domestic policies of the Nixon administration — and recall that, by the time of his re-election in 1972, Nixon had been the face of the Republican Party for 20 years — to appreciate just how badly adrift the GOP was. Nixon's agenda consisted of increased government spending, more burdensome regulations, and the imposition of wage and price controls, with no particular vision of what prosperity was or how it could be achieved and sustained. This was a party lost in the intellectual wilderness, and it remained so until the 1980s.

When Republicans rediscovered themselves in the '80s, they found a party with two distinct facets. One was rooted in the tradition of Clay and McKinley: a belief in fostering economic prosperity on a national level in order to advance the material well-being of all classes of citizens. This legacy manifested itself in the pro-growth, supply-side economic principles of Ronald Reagan — an emphasis on lower taxes, less intrusive government regulation, and the promotion of the private domestic economy. (Though unlike the original Republicans, for this new Republican Party, a growth agenda also meant an embrace of lower tariffs — for as the needs of American business had changed, so had the Republican position on trade.)

The second facet of modern Republicanism is less appreciated, in part because it did not yield many obvious political benefits until well after it was first articulated. It was best embodied in the conservatism not of Ronald Reagan, but of Dwight Eisenhower. We might call it the principle of political stare decisis. In a legal context, stare decisis refers to the notion that judges should respect the precedents set by past decisions of the courts, declining to disturb settled matters. In politics, the principle would suggest acknowledging that long-settled policy debates should remain settled. If a particular program or policy is politically objectionable but has nevertheless, over time, become a generally accepted fixture of American life, lawmakers should not propose a radical rollback if they can avoid it. Rather, they should repair the specific components of the policy that threaten the nation more broadly, and do their best to keep the program's most troublesome components from growing even more so.

In the 1950s, there were factions within the Republican Party that wanted to roll back the more popular elements of the New Deal, including Social Security. But Eisenhower tried to plot a middle course between liberal Democrats and the conservatives within his party. He thought a reasonable safety net had to be kept in place for the sake of social stability, but that it should not be overly burdensome to private enterprise. For instance, Eisenhower approved the creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to ensure that existing federal programs, like Social Security, were properly implemented. He also brought nearly 10 million additional people into the Social Security system by expanding its disability coverage and other benefits.

This qualified respect for precedent — accepting the general goals and outlines of a modern welfare state while seeking to make it compatible with growth and prosperity — became an equally important influence on modern Republican thinking. As Reagan's approach was to boldly proclaim what the party's agenda would change, Eisenhower's was to prudently draw limits around what it would not.

Thus the contemporary GOP — the post-war party of the American System — is a two-sided coin. On one side are pro-growth, pro-business, and pro-prosperity policies. On the other side is acceptance of a long-established social-welfare system to take care of people who cannot prosper on their own, especially the indigent and the elderly. In the fusion of the two, Republicans have rediscovered the old principles of Hamilton, Clay, and McKinley. Reagan and Eisenhower together represent the modern full-dinner-pail agenda.


It is with this blended identity in mind that we should examine the policy difficulties now confronting the Republican Party. America is fast approaching a situation in which the entitlement state as it was constructed more than half a century ago threatens to swallow the federal budget; we must either reform the system, or raise taxes to a level that will cripple economic growth. The latter proposal will be the solution offered by the Democratic Party, the ruling majority of which is simply not very concerned about growth. But this approach cannot, and therefore will not, be the choice of the Republicans. Instead, the Grand Old Party must find a way to serve the basic ends of the entitlement state by means that do not suffocate the American economy. That is the challenge Republicans face — fulfilling the mandate of the full dinner pail.

Some numbers will put the magnitude of this challenge into perspective. Over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office projects that we will spend a total of $26 trillion on entitlement programs alone — which will amount to a staggering 13% of gross domestic product. In reality, however, entitlement spending is likely to account for an even larger share, because the CBO uses a relatively rosy projection of real economic growth, which it anticipates will average about 2.8% per year over the next decade. Over the past decade, though, the American economy grew at an average of only 1.7% per year. If this sort of anemic growth continues, entitlement spending will be an even greater share of the total economy. This is what is driving America's enormous deficits and debt: not pork-barrel projects or foreign aid, but a combination of weak economic growth and the unfunded obligations of the American welfare state.

The Republican Party really is on its own when it comes to dealing with the impending deficit crisis. The Democrats made that clear in the spring, when President Obama released his 2012 budget — which, according to CBO, would actually increase total spending over the next decade and add to the deficit. When the Republicans unveiled their own budget proposal, designed to resolve the deficit problem and bring spending under control, the Democrats responded not with serious policy critiques but inflammatory rhetoric — including testimony by the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, that the GOP's proposed Medicare reforms would actually cause senior citizens to "die sooner." The left, it seems, has little interest in significant, plausible reforms.

Given the Democrats' abdication on this front, the Republicans' mandate is clear. For four decades, our government sustained entitlement promises without allowing total federal spending to rise above an average of 21% of GDP. Republicans must now find a way to continue meeting the basic objectives of the welfare state without allowing spending to soar above 21% of GDP and cripple economic growth. This moment requires, in other words, combining the pro-growth ambitions of Reagan with the respect for tradition of Eisenhower — bold reforms to retain an endangered status quo.

Unfortunately, this is not the only great challenge facing the Republican Party. At least as difficult as the deficit and debt dilemma — and at least as important to voters — is the problem of declining economic growth and the related problem of slowing wage growth. Between 1981 and 2000, real GDP grew at an average annual rate of 3.4%. In the past decade, however, it grew at just 1.7%, as noted above. As a consequence, real wages and salaries have been in decline over the past ten years. In 2000, per capita real wages and salaries totaled $19,400 per year. In 2007, at the peak of the last growth period, they amounted to just $20,000 per year. That's an annual growth rate of just three tenths of one percent. Today, they are down even from that dismal level — to $18,500, about where they were in 1998.

This is a problem for the whole country, of course. But it is a particularly acute political problem for the Republican Party. The Democrats offer security through government-sponsored protections and benefits. Republicans offer prosperity through growth in the private economy. If prosperity does not materialize, the public will naturally be moved to seek at least security.

Even when they do talk about prosperity, Republicans too often fail to talk about wages — that is, about the actual prosperity experienced by individual working families, as opposed to that of the whole economy in the abstract. Too often in the past, Republicans have confused being the "party of growth" with being the "party of business profits." And this can be a dangerous line to toe: After all, businesses that make enormous profits today by laying off workers and sending jobs overseas are no friends of the American growth agenda. Plus, large corporations are often more concerned with securing government rents than promoting overall economic growth; it should therefore be no surprise that big business has often lined up with the Obama agenda over the past two years. On that front, Republicans cannot compete with the new Democratic Party, nor should they desire to. Still, today's Republicans can, and should, be pro-business — only with the goal of helping business expand on its own merits, and in a way that works to the material advantage of all Americans. If Republicans cannot promise improvement in this area — increasing the prosperity of average citizens — then they have little hope of winning political majorities they will need to make a difference in any area.

Republicans therefore need to develop a policy platform that spurs growth in the domestic economy with widely distributed benefits. This will require, in part, pushing favored conservative policy solutions like deregulation and a simplified, more efficient tax code. But it will also require Republicans to move beyond their comfort zone — for instance, modifying the incentive structures for businesses so that it is in their interests to hire Americans to fill good, well-paying jobs here. That suggests not just a lowering of the corporate tax rates, but a restructuring of those rates to make it worthwhile to keep jobs in the United States.

On this front, it might be appropriate to take a page out of William McKinley's playbook. McKinley was generally a protectionist, but he also believed in trade reciprocity, or the orderly reduction of tariff rates through treaties. Today, American workers must compete with workers worldwide who are paid less and do not benefit from anything like the workplace protections that this country provides. McKinley's principle of reciprocity might suggest adjusting tax and tariff laws based upon how well workers are treated in a particular foreign country, and thus how fair the competition is with their American counterparts. Whatever programs the party adopts, the goal should be to advance the interests of American business for the sake of American workers.

The Republican Party also desperately needs a serious health-care agenda. Health-care costs are not just at the heart of our entitlement problem: They also play a far more central role in the problem of stagnant wages than most Americans realize. Although wages have been flat, the costs for employers to hire workers have not been: Instead, the additional costs per worker have been shifted toward supplemental benefits like health insurance. This, in turn, poses enormous problems to the average wage earner — not to mention the businesses that are expected to both pay their existing workers better wages and hire more workers to revive the economy. Health-care reform that actually brings that cost growth under control is therefore essential not only to save the government from bankruptcy, but also to enable real wages to grow again. The Congressional Budget Office has made clear that Obamacare is not likely to bring those costs under control. Republicans are committed to undoing that law, but they must be no less committed to passing an alternative reform that would in fact control costs.

Finally, education must be a priority for the Grand Old Party. The public-school system is not producing graduates with the skills necessary to prosper in the post-industrial labor market. The unemployment rate for workers with only a high-school degree remains at an extremely high 9.5% in the first quarter of 2011. A decade ago, this number was at just 3.8%. Meanwhile, for those high-school graduates who have jobs, their wages have increased by just 23% over the last decade, while the prices of food, gas, medical care, and higher education for their children have skyrocketed. College graduates are faring only a little better. Over the last decade, the annual cost of attending a four-year public university has grown by more than 50%. However, during the same period, the median weekly compensation for college graduates has increased by only 25%. Concurrently, the unemployment rate for college graduates has more than doubled, from 1.7% to 4.3%. Put simply, in the last decade, the economic benefits of going to college have not been keeping pace with the rising costs of doing so. The educational system at all levels needs substantial reforms — not only to bring costs under control, but also to ensure that the skills that students learn in high school and college enable them to negotiate for good wages in the new economy. This must be a priority for Republicans.

Of course, taxes, health care, and education are, to some degree, already on the Republican agenda. But they are not sufficiently articulated or understood in terms of wage growth — in terms of the full dinner pail.


The seemingly simple ideal of the full dinner pail — a political relic more than a century old — might appear, at first glance, to be hopelessly outmoded in our increasingly complex modern economy. But in fact, it is more essential than ever.

The transition to a white-collar, post-industrial economy has helped a good segment of the country. Nevertheless, millions of Americans have been left behind. For as goods-producing jobs — those in sectors like construction and manufacturing — have decreased in number, they have been replaced by service jobs in low-paying sectors like retail sales, leisure and hospitality, and temporary help. Even before the recent recession, just 22 million American jobs were classified as "goods producing" by the Bureau of Labor Statistics — the lowest number since the late 1960s. Today, after three years of very high unemployment, the number of goods-producing jobs stands at just 18 million, a level not regularly seen since the 1940s. The post-industrial jobs that have replaced them simply do not match up to the manufacturing jobs of old; employees in these service fields today cannot provide for themselves and their families the comfort and security enjoyed by workers in decades past.

Conservatives have not given enough thought to just how big a problem these trends pose to the country, and therefore to the Republican Party. As the private economy gradually ceases to generate prosperity for a significant portion of the American people, the GOP's prospects will surely decline. There is no other fate for a party that promises the full dinner pail but cannot deliver it.

As they consider how to avert this fate, Republicans must remember that, unlike the base of their party, the political center of the country is pragmatic rather than ideological. Most people in the middle are outcome-oriented above all else. This means that the Republican Party must find a way to make the modern economy start working for those voters — or else those voters will run into the arms of the Democrats, to be comforted by the embrace of the nanny state.

The 2012 presidential nominee, as well as Republican candidates for Congress, therefore cannot succumb to the easy temptations presented by the moment. A message that is reflexively anti-government, that stridently threatens to undo decades' worth of political and policy precedent, is not what today's voters want; to assume as much is to risk making the same mistake Democrats did in 2010. If Republicans — from Washington elites to grassroots Iowa caucus-goers — want to salvage both their political fortunes and the American economy, their course is clear. Drawing on the best of the GOP's traditions, they must use 2012 to show the country that they are serious about reducing the deficit, promoting economic growth, and, above all, enabling the prosperity of the average family.

Jay Cost, a staff writer for the Weekly Standard, is currently writing a book about the Democratic Party.


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