It’s the Middle Class, Hillary

By on February 2, 2016 in News

the-wall-street-journal-logo1 (1)(Originally published in the Wall Street Journal on February 1, 2016)

by William McGurn

Middle-class Americans are angry. And Republicans are feeling the end of their pitchforks.  So at least runs the current orthodoxy. Middle-class America, we are told, has lost faith in the classic Republicanism of limited government, lighter regulation and lower taxes. The rise of Donald Trump and his free-market heresies (high tariffs, universal health care, etc.) only proves it.


There’s no doubt middle-class Americans are frustrated these days. Which is what you might expect in an economy that is growing at an anemic 2%. Still, if middle-class anxieties will define this election, the evidence suggests that Hillary Clinton, still the presumptive Democratic nominee, has the most to worry about.

That’s not the story line, of course. In the dominant media narrative, the key to a Hillary victory in November will be her ability to turn out the Obama coalition—minority voters, female voters, young voters—in the same numbers that elected our first African-American president in 2008 and secured a second term for him in 2012. In a nation whose electorate is growing more diverse, the thinking goes, the White House is increasingly moving out of Republican reach.

It doesn’t look that way to Ed Goeas, who runs the Republican strategy firm the Tarrance Group and was advising Scott Walker’s presidential campaign until the Wisconsin governor withdrew from the race. Recently Mr. Goeas carried out a survey for the Ripon Society zeroing in on voters who describe themselves as middle class, which works out to 70% of the electorate. The survey confirmed they are unhappy—but it finds they are specifically unhappy with President Obama and a federal government that does not provide them value for their tax dollars.

Mr. Goeas puts it this way: “The middle class believes the rich get the benefits, the poor get the programs and they get stuck with the bill.”

Which points to Mrs. Clinton’s dilemma.

Only 26% of middle-class Americans, according to this survey, believe their children will enjoy a better quality of life than they do, and this has soured them on the direction President Obama has taken the country. At the same time, Mr. Obama remains highly popular with the Democratic coalition that elected him. Mrs. Clinton’s pickle is that the agenda that works well with the Obama coalition turns off the middle class.

True, the survey finds 69% of the middle class saying the federal government is not doing enough for them. But digging deeper, it finds that more than two-in-three voters agree with the Reagan line that the federal government is part of the problem, not the solution. Nearly as many (59%) doubt the government is even capable of an effective solution.

When asked about their economic agenda, the preferences are likewise illuminating: in order, the middle-class priorities are jobs, reducing health-care costs, a government that lives within its means, and tax reform.

How different this is from Mrs. Clinton’s pitch, promising all manner of new government initiatives—from making college more affordable to building more roads and bridges to universal pre-K—that add up to $1.1 trillion in new spending. Bernie Sanders only forces her further down this road.

Mrs. Clinton claims she’ll pay for it all by soaking the rich. But however disenchanted the middle class may be about the Republican record of the past decade, the Ripon findings suggest they simply do not believe Big Government is the answer.

And why not? Over the past seven years, middle-class Americans have endured a president who consciously set out to transform the nation. The result was a stimulus that didn’t stimulate, an ObamaCare that has surprised them with more bureaucracy and nasty premium hikes, a massive increase in federal spending that nonetheless shortchanges our military, and a listless economy that has forced a record number of Americans out of the workforce entirely. Even more striking, the Ripon survey found that middle-class African-Americans and Latinos are open to the same bread-and-butter Republican appeals that work with the white middle class.

For Republicans, the intense middle-class dissatisfaction represents a tremendous opportunity. While it’s true that Donald Trump has tapped into it with his talk of standing up for the Average Joe and making America “great again,” he hasn’t offered much to back it up except to say he’ll be a better deal maker. The GOP would do well to appropriate his rhetoric, but tie it to a policy framework that emphasizes government accountability, economic opportunity and upward mobility—just as House Speaker Paul Ryan is trying to do in Congress.

If Mr. Goeas is right, the soft underbelly of Mrs. Clinton’s current campaign for president is that she has abandoned the Bill Clinton model that was attractive to the middle class for the Barack Obama model that is now turning them off.

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