A generation ago, the great majority of the most educated Americans voted Republican. The elder George Bush, for instance, defeated Michael Dukakis among college graduates by 25 points. But that advantage has been eroding, and last year Barack Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win a majority of American voters with four years of higher education.
This is no small bloc, especially within white America, where Republicans do best. Almost one third of white Americans hold a college degree, up from one fifth in 1990. Republicans cannot win without this growing group. To recover them, we need to do four things:
1. We must develop economic policies that are more relevant to today's middle class. Adjusting for inflation, college graduates earned less in 2006 than they did in 2000. The culprit: rising health-care costs. Until Republicans can offer hope on this issue, our economic message will bypass those whom it would otherwise most benefit. Most Americans do not want government-provided health care. They could, however, be receptive to a market-oriented system—if we can intensify competition between private providers to slow the rise in health-care costs.
2. Republicans need to modulate our social and cultural message. Not jettison. Not reverse. Modulate. For example: we are a pro-life party, but every Republican platform since 1980 has gone much further, calling for a federal constitutional amendment to ban all abortions in all states under almost all circumstances. We don't mean it. We don't act on it. Yet we keep saying it.
That's just one way in which we're confusing voters. We don't intend to police every single one of the millions of deathbeds in America, either. So why did we obsess over Terri Schiavo? We don't believe in sectarianism, yet some candidates in 2008 seemed to cross that line. One explicitly campaigned as a "Christian leader." This is self-destructive in a country where the fastest-growing religion is no religion at all.
Meanwhile, some moderate GOP stances go unpublicized. George W. Bush allowed private-sector and university stem-cell research to proceed unregulated. How will voters know that, unless we forcefully remind them?
3. We have to adopt an environmental ethic of our own. This does not mean endorsing every scare story hyped by professional greens. From apples supposedly poisoned by the growth chemical Alar to the alleged commercial viability of wind power, green groups have been wrong at least as often as they have been proved right. But we do have to recognize a global shift in consciousness on environmental issues.
Whenever a city or county considers whether to widen a highway or tear down a historic building, it's the local Republicans who seem to favor more traffic and less beauty. Yet almost every major environmental law of the past half century was signed by a Republican president, including the Clean Air Act of 1990, which effectively ended the acid-rain problem. It's time Republicans treated this history as a selling point. For women voters especially, environmental protection has joined national security as part of what it means to "keep us safe"—and the GOP should make the case that it has always done that best.
4. We need to regain our historic advantage as the party of competence. College-educated Americans are among the hardest-working people in the world. They expect their government to work hard, too. Instead, Republicans have presided over Iraq, Katrina and the catastrophic mortgage meltdown—the worst sequence of public-sector fiascoes in a generation.
Republicans champion limited government, and well we should. Unfortunately, we sometimes talk as if we oppose government altogether and welcome its failures as opportunities to say, "I told you so." This is foolish. Americans don't blame "the government" for Iraq. They blame the people they hired to run the government. If we Republicans keep telling them we cannot make their government work as expected, they'll hire somebody else (as they already have).
We Republicans cannot recover the votes of the college-educated until we understand why we lost them. So long as we think Barack Obama won because of a fluke—because he waltzed into an economic crisis, or because his supporters somehow mastered better election technology, or because he somehow bamboozled the American public with vague, endearing promises of change—so long as we think those things, so long will our troubles continue. Barack Obama won because a majority of Americans believed he was an intelligent, levelheaded and responsible person who could solve problems they cared about. If we're to beat him—or succeed him—we're going to have to convince them that we can do the same or better.