Ross Douthat sees the GOP as the party of the middle class. With Barack Obama virtually assured the Democratic nomination, that seems quite possible, as Obama has yet to close the deal with middle-class voters.
However, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the GOP. The Republicans can’t win on populism, partially because the Democrats are better at sounding populist themes and partially because populist public policy is just bad public policy. The GOP has to reach out to the middle class, but they have to do that on their own terms. Just attacking the Democrats just will not cut it, not in an election cycle where a culture of political arrogance has so damaged the GOP brand.
What the Republicans need to do is relatively straightforward: they need to admit that “compassionate conservatism” was a failure and start running on “competent conservatism.” American attitudes towards government are as cynical as ever, and for good reason. The Democrats will try to hang all those failures on President Bush. The Republicans have to use the failure of the Democratic Congress to make the point that the problems with American government run deeper that who is in office.
Sen. McCain is well-positioned to make those arguments, but the leadership of the GOP is not. They want to play politics as usual in a time when playing politics as usual is political suicide. The GOP has to be a party dedicated at every level towards reforming American government. That means having a party leadership that can credibly deliver that message. With only a few exceptions, the GOP does not have the leadership they need to win.
The way to victory in 2008 is for the GOP to recapture the Reagan message: more government does not help the working classes, American strength can be victorious in a turbulent and dangerous world, and the values upon which this country was founded are values which are as vital now as they have ever been. That message works because it appeals to the essential values of the American experience. If the GOP wants to win the middle class (as well as the independents they need to win) they have to give voters a compelling reason to vote for the Republican Party beyond attacking the Democrats. If they can’t offer a competing vision backed with substantive policy, then they will risk a repeat of the 2006 bloodbath, and this time, the stakes are much higher.