The Republican Autopsy and the Empathy Gap

The Republican National Committee’s recent report on fixing the party runs 100 pages, but if you want to know why it fails, you need only read Page 5.

The Republican National Committee's recent report on fixing the party runs 100 pages, but if you want to know why the report fails, all you need to see is this statement on Page 5: "We are the Party of private-sector economic growth because that is the best way to create jobs and opportunity. That is the best way to help people earn an income, achieve success and take care of their families."

There are two flawed and unaddressed assumptions in that statement. One is that Republican policies create more private sector economic growth than Democratic policies, an outcome we haven't observed in recent decades. The other is that economic growth will flow through effectively to rising standards of living, even though since the 1970s gross domestic product growth has strongly outpaced wage growth.

The report urges Republicans to call themselves the "Growth and Opportunity Party"; it does not address how you are supposed to sell that message when people have no good reason to believe that Republicans create growth or that growth would lead to opportunity.

What the report really reflects, as my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru wrote, is the biases of Washington-based Republican elites. These people are educated, live in the Northeast, and tend to sit to the left of the typical Republican voter on immigration and social issues. They do not tend to think the party's economic platform is particularly problematic -- indeed, they have probably spent years telling people they met at parties that they are Republicans principally for economic reasons.

This is a key example of the Republican empathy gap identified by Matt Yglesias last week when Senator Rob Portman announced his shift to supporting gay marriage. Professional Republicans in Washington spend a lot of time in environments that are diverse in certain ways: They know people from racial minorities, gay people, single women on birth control, immigrants. And this makes them likely to support gay marriage and immigration, embarrassed about Republicans' most ham-fisted comments to social issues, and attuned to the fact that the party is unwelcoming to minorities.

But they don't spend a lot of time around poor people. And so they haven't identified it as a problem that, unlike the Democrats, Republicans have no plan to ensure that Americans can get health insurance. They are not alarmed that the most recent House Republican Budget's main proposal on higher education is to shift rising costs away from the government and toward students. They don't know people who have depended on food stamps or extended unemployment benefits to support their families because they cannot find work.

And they therefore don't worry that Republicans' plans to cut safety net programs will create more misery than opportunity, or that the insistence on keeping tax cuts for the rich at the top of the agenda crowds out room to "make sure the government works for those truly in need."

Partly this is just a failure of knowledge. Conservatives have been badly disserved by their side's health-policy experts, who have misled them into believing that they have a health plan that would lead to universal coverage and cost reductions. (The public has correctly observed the Republicans as simply being obstinately opposed to health reform.) Many were misled by the Mitt Romney campaign into believing that it is possible to sharply cut tax rates on the rich without losing revenue or raising taxes on the middle class.

But partly it's a failure of empathy. I really do mean empathy, not sympathy. Conservative elites are aware that poor people exist and genuinely want them to become wealthier. They are just completely failing to put themselves in the shoes of the poor or even the middle class and understand what they would actually find helpful, in the way they can understand that unauthorized immigrants would like to become citizens and gay people would like to get married. They fixate on distortions and costs created by Obamacare and don't even pause to think about why someone would value a guarantee of affordable health coverage.

It's obvious why professional conservatives resist grappling with the real reason their economic agenda does not sell, because it would lead them to the conclusion that the economic agenda must change toward accepting larger government. The world is changing in ways that make Republicans' platform of smaller government and lower taxes less desirable and therefore less saleable.

Pre-tax income inequality is rising all over the world, and the only way to control the growth in inequality of living standards is through greater fiscal transfers -- larger government. Rising productivity in other sectors is causing health care and education to grow as shares of the economy, and the only way to keep them affordable to the masses is through greater subsidy -- larger government.

That is a very troubling message if the reason you got into politics was because you care about making government smaller. If you care deeply about keeping government small, you will resist that message. You will, as Jonathan Chait writes, jettison any other liabilities you can in a last-ditch effort to win without changing your economic policies. But while I think Chait assumes this is a conscious strategy, I think Washington conservatives are still at the stage of protecting the economic agenda without realizing it is a liability.

That won't work forever. As in the 1950s, Republicans will eventually be forced to change their economic policies to be competitive again. And when they are ready to listen, I will be here waiting with ideas about how to do better. But the RNC report suggests the Republicans have more time to spend puttering around with doomed approaches to fixing their appeal.

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