December 10th, 2018
A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com HERE
I have an uncomplicated theory of voter behavior: when the party in power approaches issues in a way that is simplistic, extreme and beholden to special interests, people tend to vote for the other party.
This theory explains a lot more than you might think. It explains why New York City – a place where you could spend all day without running into a single Republican – has elected and reelected quite a few Republican mayors. It explains why Massachusetts – arguably our most Democratic state – has a very popular conservative Republican governor. It explains why California – a state where successful Republican politicians are a vanishing breed — elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.
And, it explains why traditionally Republican districts voted in the last election to give control of the House of Representatives to Democrats instead.
Let’s take a handful of issues that voters said were important in the recent election: say, health care, immigration, climate change and taxes. Forget what candidates said in the safe districts, where opinions are as extreme as they are irrelevant. Focus on what was said in the contested races.
Here’s what you need to know about the Democrats. They had no plan to deal with any of these issues. No plan? None. Zero. Zilch. If you don’t believe me go to A Better Deal, the Senate Democrats web site for the 2018 campaign:
- How do the Senate Democrats propose to make the tax system simpler, fairer and pro-growth? They don’t have a single proposal.
- How do they propose to do stop climate change? Apparently, they have no idea.
- How about immigration? Nothing there either.
- Reforming Obamacare? It’s not on their radar screen.
So how did Democrats win on the issues? By not being Republicans. That’s not a joke. That’s really how they campaigned.
Republican House members voted dozens of times to repeal Obamacare, without proposing any credible alternative. That meant taking health insurance away from about 20 million people and using the money to cut taxes for the rich, along with drug companies, insurance companies and big business. All Democrats had to say is: we’re not for that.
On climate change, Republicans were stuck in denial. On immigration, they had no solution beyond a wall. If Democrats said anything at all on these subjects, they suddenly looked reasonable.
Tax policy is the one area where Republicans could lay claim to a thoughtful reform. When Barack Obama proposed to lower the top corporate income tax from 38% to 28% and all the way down to 25% for manufacturing, many mainstream economists thought that was a good idea. No one attacked him as being a shill for rich shareholders.
But Republicans in Congress made two tactical errors. They followed Obama’s initiative with a purely partisan approach, making no real attempt to get Democratic support. And they did nothing to make the intellectual case for tax reform to economic and financial analysts who write editorials, comment on TV and in other ways communicate tax issues to the voting public.
By the time of the election, the public perception was so bad that tax reform became a Democratic talking point, rather than a Republican one. Democratic candidates resorted to demagoguery, of course. But it was Republican unforced errors that made the demagoguery possible.
On women’s issues, Republicans were the party of “no.” No abortion. No Planned Parenthood. No free contraceptives. Where were all the “yesses”?
On senior issues, Republicans were the party of gloom and doom, reminding voters we have promised future entitlement benefits we don’t know how to pay for. Who wants to vote for gloom and doom?
What makes all of this so surprising is that it flips certain natural tendencies upside down. Historically, Republicans have been inclined to take a cost-benefit approach to public policy, while Democrats have been more likely to be simplistic and extreme.
On climate change, for example, a cost-benefit approach would compare any sacrifice we are being asked to make today with any benefit that sacrifice is likely to produce. The reason Emmanuel Macron is being battered by protests in France is that French workers understand intuitively that the burden of higher fuel prices goes well beyond any possible climate benefits.
Since it is very difficult for Democrats to take a cost-benefit approach to any issue, they too would be battered by riots and protests if they tried to impose the carbon tax many of them would secretly like to enact in this country. By staking out a cost-benefit approach to climate change, Republicans could force their opponents to defend the extremist measures they implicitly believe in.
On immigration, a cost-benefit approach would suggest a guest worker program that allows immigration that benefits our economy when and where the need arises but denies immigration that exploits our welfare system. If Republicans made this position clear, Democrats would have a hard time opposing it.
On corporate taxation, a cost-benefit approach would commend a flexible response to the taxation policies of other countries and evidence on international capital flows. Were this approach made clear, the Democratic idea that there is no harm in taxing corporate profits to the hilt would become untenable.
On women’s issues, Wall Street Journal editorialist Kimberley Strassel and I wrote an entire book on policy changes needed to accommodate the entry of women into the labor force. For example, we should let part-time workers and independent contractors have the same tax advantages with respect to pensions and health insurance that we grant to employees of big companies. Because of their connection to labor unions, it’s hard for Democrats to endorse these very sensible reforms.
The 90% of seniors who claim early retirement lose 50 cents of Social Security benefits for every dollar they earn beyond a modest level. The federal government would probably lose no revenue by abolishing this earnings penalty and encouraging seniors to contribute to an economy that needs their skills.
We could also save a lot of money by creating Medicare-funded Health Savings Accounts, from which seniors could contract with concierge doctors for their primary care, order Uber-type house calls for a fraction of the cost of emergency room visits and take advantage of other private sector innovations.
These reforms should be no-brainers for Republicans. Because of Democrats’ connection with AARP, they are hard issues for Democrats.
Obamacare is also ripe with reform possibilities. There is no good reason why people aren’t talking to their doctors by phone and email. There is no reason why the chronically ill must make long and painful round trips to hospitals and doctors’ offices when a simple app on an iPhone makes home consultations as easy as pie.
Republicans in Congress have swung back and forth between simplistic slogans (“Repeal Obamacare”) and proposals designed by special interests who have no desire to change their business models. Thoughtful reform has evaded them.
Here is the bottom line. On a wide array of issues voters care about, Republicans in Congress have been unwilling to tackle the hard problems and offer sensible solutions. Other than corporate tax reform, they all too often have resorted to simplistic slogans and extremist language and have bowed to special interest pressures.
Voters have not been fooled. They are smarter than you think they are.