Bill Whalen

Bill Whalen: To win White House in 2016, GOP must appeal to middle class

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speech writer for Gov. Pete Wilson.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speech writer for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen

If history is any guide, a Republican should win the White House in 2016. Only once in the past century has a nominee of the same party succeeded a retiring two-term incumbent. George H.W. Bush pulled off the feat in 1988, following fellow Republican Ronald Reagan.

So how can the GOP snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

Simple – keep doing what it did last week.

That would include the sorry spectacle of House leaders canceling a vote on an abortion ban that female Republicans saw as an affront to rape victims, only to come back with a new set of proposed restrictions, such as requiring women to have preabortion ultrasounds.

Meanwhile, on the national stage, both Sarah Palin and Donald Trump saw fit to step forth, again. Trump was especially unpleasant, trashing the potential candidacies of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. There’s nothing like a lecture on do-overs from a guy with a bad comb-over.

Some of this is attributable to the silliness at the beginning of new political cycles. Republicans still have to figure out what do with their newfound power on Capitol Hill. And this early in the presidential race, demagogues such as Trump get their moment.

However, Republicans should be deeply concerned about what voters are seeing. To regain the White House, the GOP needs to show it’s profound, productive, sensible and sensitive to voters’ concerns. So far (and yes, it’s early in the game), the party is sporting a bagel on the scoreboard. How, then, to correct course?

I’d start by looking at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, an hourlong presentation in which he referenced “working” Americans nine times and the “middle class” only two times less. Obama is clever enough to realize that a wage-squeezed working class is the “forgotten man” in an economic recovery that’s produced dizzying wealth – if you have the resources to play the stock market or flip real estate.

“Forgotten man” politics is a game Democrats play well – and Republicans still don’t. It worked wonders for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, when he used the term to embrace Americans devastated by the Great Depression. Four years later, FDR turned it an electoral-crushing Democratic coalition of unions, farmers, seniors, minorities, white Southerners and progressive intellectuals.

History will judge how Obama measures on the FDR scale of grandeur, but credit him with his own “forgotten” coalition: women (in 2012, he benefited from the largest gender gap ever), Latinos, millennials, gays and highly educated liberals.

For seven years now, since Amity Shlaes released her book on Depression-era politics with “Forgotten Man” as its title, Republicans have struggled with how to define the phrase other than the cliché “people who work hard and play by the rules.”

In this regard, the race for the GOP nomination is as much about defining who exactly is “forgotten” as it is finding this generation’s Ronald Reagan. To listen to those Republicans who gathered at a so-called “freedom summit” in Iowa last weekend, “the forgotten man” hungers for lectures on faith, values and government distrust.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is offering “consensus” ideas (he wants to spend billions on infrastructure via bipartisan tax repatriation). Jeb Bush tours the country imploring Republicans to soften their stances on illegal immigration and education policy. As for Romney, it was social conservatism in 2008 and economics in 2012.

Find the right answer that appeals to the middle class, and Republicans probably pass history’s test in 2016. But if they fail, forget about the presidency.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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