Byron York pointed out that Santorum has been one of the few Republicans who spent the 2012 trying to emphasize the problems of the struggling middle-class. Santorum was talking about the wage-earners who had not graduated college while the Republican ticket was publicly obsessed with extolling the job creators who “built that” and the Republican presidential nominee slandered working families who didn’t have a income tax liability as parasites who could not be convinced to take personal responsibility for their own lives. There is a lot of wisdom in this Santorum statement:

But we tend not to see the folks who are behind the counter or on the factory line or in the wash room as heroes, even though they built it too, right? They were part of building it. It’s not that we don’t think they’re good people, but we don’t celebrate them, because they’re not the ones leading the effort. And I think that’s a flaw — not that we shouldn’t celebrate the job creators, but we also have to celebrate the job holders . I believe in entrepreneurs, but that’s a very small segment of the population, and to be crass politically, we’ve already got most of those folks, because if they’re small business people, they know that big government is an albatross around their necks. So we need to talk more specifically about what we can do to create job opportunities for people instead of business opportunities for people.

Santorum is a throwback in many ways. In some respects that is a good thing. He is a throwback to the days when Republicans prioritized winning over strongly Democratic-identifying working-class voters instead of just trying to reassemble the winning coalition of earlier decades. Unfortunately, as Henry Olsen has pointed out, Santorum is a throwback in some bad ways too. Eliminating the corporate income tax on manufacturers is not going to bring back the era of the factory. When Santorum talked about the working-class, there was something real there. He was one of the few Republicans to point out that cutting the top marginal tax rate was not going to do much for lower-skill male workers who had experienced decades of declining wages and disintegrating family lives.

But there was also something dated about Santorum’s description of working-class life (sometimes discussing his grandfather or growing up in working-class neighborhoods in Pennsylvania). It shows up in Santorum’s description of entrepreneurs. Santorum said of non-entrepreneurs:

They see raising a family, being part of the community, having leisure time. That’s OK. It’s OK for us not to all be Type-A personalities and want to be super achievers.

As with a lot of what Santorum says, there is much that is right. There is a lot to be said for the people who go to work, pay their bills, and raise their children. There is dignity and value to those lives and those people have their own legitimate concerns. It would be better if Republicans talked more about those people as something other than the passive beneficiaries of the economic growth that will come when marginal tax rates are cut on high-earners.

And yet the line between entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs is not so clear-cut. A study by the College Republicans found that forty-five percent of young people (and even larger percentages of young African-Americans and Latinos) aspired to own their own business.

This is where Texas Senator Ted Cruz comes in.  After the election, Ted Cruz was reported to have said:

One of the best slogans that came out of this campaign was, ‘You built that!’ I wish we could take a different tack. That was a slogan that was aimed at the 53 percent, . . . It was aimed at business owners. It was aimed at people who already got there. I think their message should have been: You can build that.

Maybe, but not if “you can build that” is just an aspirational topping on a Republican agenda of cutting taxes on high-earners and hoping for the best for those under the median income. While many young people might want to be entrepreneurs, they aren’t entrepreneurs now . They have their own problems now , and those problems are very similar to the problems of lower-earning Americans who don’t aspire to own their own business. The College Republican report noted that many young aspiring entrepreneurs did not see the Republicans as the party of aspiration. They saw the Republicans as the party of those who already made it.  A “you can build that” message won’t help if the Republican agenda looks more like “We think you can build that, and when you do, we’ll be waiting with a big juicy tax cut. In the meantime, don’t bother us.”

That doesn’t mean Republicans have to become anti-business. Many of those young people want to join business.  But they have their own worries about health insurance. They have friends who will probably never start their own business but want to raise their families through work. They can probably be reached with a balanced approach that increases take home pay and improves access to health care for working families in the here and now, combined with pro-growth policies. Conservative wonks have done some good work here.

Like with a lot of the good in Santorum, Ronald Reagan got there first and better. Here is Reagan from his First Inaugural:

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.

Now, I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your,” because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak — you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.


That seems like a good balance for the Republican party. Entrepreneurs are naturally going to have a special place in the Republican party’s rhetoric, but it doesn’t have to be to the exclusion of wage-earners. There are all kinds of reasons why Santorum won’t be like Ronald Reagan and break through with strongly Democratic-identifying working-class voters, but Santorum is facing up to the reality that Republicans are seen as the party that primarily favors the interests of the wealthy - and that Republican politicians share some of the blame for this perception. Copying Reagan won’t get it done either. There are lessons to be learned from Santorum and Reagan, but the Republican who can break through with today’s Democratic-identifying working-class voters will be one who can talk today’s issues in today’s idiom to today’s working-class.

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