Angelo Codevilla described the revolt of the Republican “country class” in which Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination and Ronald Reagan eventually won the presidency. Codevilla traces the divisions within the Republican party to the New Deal where the Bob Taft wing opposed big government while the Rockefeller wing wanted big government to be more corporation-friendly. This led to a split in which most of the Republican leadership wanted to join the Democrat-constructed ruling class while most Republican voters (the country class”) were opposed to the ruling class and big government leading to the eventual Goldwater revolt.
I’m not sure this conceptual scheme fits Reagan perfectly. Reagan governed with the acquiescence of the Republican establishment (Howard Baker, Bob Michel and Bob Dole might not have agree with everything Reagan wanted but they went along in the end), and the enthusiasm and admiration of the party’s activist and voter base. He also won over many ancestral Democratic voters who would have sooner voted for Ming the Merciless than a member of the anti-New Deal wing of the Republican party. Reagan wasn’t simply of the Republican country class. He was also able to recruit members of the other party’s coalition by offering solutions to the country’s problems (and those solutions did not include eliminating the basics of the New Deal welfare state.)
The Republicans need something similar now. They need a strategy that will unite the party’s establishment and ideological activists while at the same time reaching out to Democrats and voters who feel abandoned by both parties. This has a public relations aspect, but let us put that aside for the moment. Republicans need policies with populist appeal and not of the “cut taxes on the job creators to get money out of the caboose of big government and into the engine of the high earners who built that” variety that united both the Republican “establishment” and “country class” in 2012.
Republicans need to be able to be able to talk to skeptical ancestral Democratic-leaning voters and explain policies that will directly benefit them. The alleged indirect effects of cutting taxes on somebody else won’t be nearly enough. They need policies that will be able to explain to rural working-class voters how they will be able to maintain their health insurance if their plant or mine closes and they have to make do with a patchwork of part-time jobs that leave you working fifty hours a week but don’t provide benefits while one of your kids has asthma and your wife is a cancer survivor. Conservatives have answers to these kinds of concerns.
Republicans have family friendly tax reform that would cut taxes on working families and especially on parents while making the tax code more investment-friendly. Let the Democrats be the party that is forever proposing tax increases on high earners and nothing for everybody else while Republican can be the party of the middle-class tax cut, working families and growth.
Yuval Levin has proposed reducing old age benefits for lifetime high earners. The details are open for debate, but the principle is sound. The safety net should be for the vulnerable and we shouldn’t tax the middle-class (or anybody else) in order to provide benefits to people who do not needs them. The Republicans can offer the electorate a deal. We will tax you all less (relative to the Democrats) but we will keep the safety net for the vulnerable. Democrats want to tax you more because they think you are too stupid and greedy to maintain the safety net if we aren’t giving benefits to people who don’t needs them.
By making the health insurance tax exclusion a flat refundable tax credit, Republicans could propose a plan that would make health insurance affordable to people who end up outside of the employer-provided health care system. A system of reinsurance pools could help those with preexisting conditions much more cheaply and transparently than Obamacare and with far fewer burdens on everyone else.
Let the Republicans be the party of lower middle-class taxes, a more rational and sustainable welfare state and lower health care premiums combined with health insurance security. Then we might see a country class revolt that includes many current Democrats.