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Republican delegates in Cleveland spent last week updating the party platform — mostly nipping and tucking around the edges of a document that has remained largely unchanged for decades. Standing in place is a counterintuitive move for a party that has won the popular vote in only one presidential election in 28 years and has gone through an extraordinary amount of tumult this year.
Republicans aren’t moving because they can’t see their way out of a trap they’re in. Some of them want to water down conservative ideas to appeal to moderates — but others warn that they will risk losing the base voters the party needs if they try. Donald Trump has stoked the anger and fear of a lot of working-class whites who are anxious about their ability to make a decent living and feel that the federal government is not looking out for their interests. But Trump is at the very least not improving the party’s disastrous standing with Hispanic voters, and he appears to be driving away a lot of college-educated white voters who used to side with the Republicans.
The party is in this precarious position, because our agenda has grown stale and out of touch with the concerns of today’s voters — from single women to Hispanics to working-class whites and beyond. But if you look at the problem from another angle, you begin to glimpse an escape route: Perhaps applying conservative ideas to today’s problems might be a way to build support among all these different kinds of voters.
Trump, unlike too many Republicans, at least saw that the party’s existing message seemed at best irrelevant to a lot of voters’ concerns. But Trump has no interest in offering them serious solutions (as he told Time magazine, “My voters don’t care, the public doesn’t care” about a policy agenda), and he certainly has no interest in offering serious conservative solutions.
A conservatism that offered solutions to voters’ concerns about stagnant wages, the cost of health insurance and rising college tuitions might, on the other hand, appeal to some of the same Trump voters who are cold to a message of free trade and entitlement reform — and at the same time appeal to young people, Hispanics and others who consider Trump an enemy of their values.
Liberals and the press love to pigeonhole voters based on their demographic characteristics: Immigration is all that moves Hispanics; single women are all about free contraception from their employers; young people will never vote Republican because of same-sex marriage. While these are real stumbling blocks for many voters, obsessing about these issues can obscure the fact that each of these groups of voters are more likely to struggle economically than the typical Republican. Even if immigration and those other issues disappeared, a Republican party without many answers for economically insecure voters would underperform among all these groups — and among working-class whites, too.
There’s no reason Republicans can’t tackle these economic concerns directly. Conservative voters, no less than moderate ones, want to see Republicans address the skyrocketing cost of college and advance a real replacement for Obamacare. But to meet that demand we would have to move beyond our comfort zone of talking about marginal tax rates and the overregulation of business. We would have to move beyond the platform and program of Ronald Reagan, because we are in a different economy and society than the one he led.
To the extent Republicans remain competitive, it’s only because the Democrats’ agenda is just as tired and unresponsive to the concerns of most voters, especially middle-class voters who do not have college degrees. But we can do better — especially if we reject the false choice of either expanding the party or mobilizing the base. That false choice has already led us to waste an enormous amount of time, energy and resources on infighting.
The challenges we face as a nation today are different than those faced by Reagan and other conservative standard-bearers. If we want to attract voters again, we should follow Reagan’s example and think creatively about answering the challenges set before us, rather than cling to an outdated set of policies that communicate to large swaths of voters that we have no plans to help them and don’t even share their concerns.
Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour is hosting a series of columns to run during both of the 2016 national political conventions.
Joining the discussion:
April Ponnuru is a senior advisor at the Conservative Reform Network, where she focuses on developing and promoting conservative policy reforms. Previously she was an advisor to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
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