How Can Conservatives Counter Trump?

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets audience members at a campaign rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, December 28, 2015. Brian Snyder/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Let’s posit that Donald Trump’s polling power—particularly among white working-class voters—mostly reflects that group’s economic troubles and anxieties about the future. What sort of economically sound agenda might resonate with these voters?

Something other than border walls, immigrant roundups and deportation and trade wars with Asia.

In his much buzzed-about Atlantic piece, David Frum tries to outline just such an agenda:

Admittedly, this may be the most uncongenial thought of them all, but party elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class.

Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle.

Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. …

Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs and the anti-competitive practices that inflate college tuition. Remember that Republican voters care more about aligning government with their values of work and family than they care about cutting the size of government as an end in itself.

Recognize that the gimmick of mobilizing the base with culture-war outrages stopped working at least a decade ago. Such a party would cut health-care costs by squeezing providers, not young beneficiaries. It would boost productivity by investing in hard infrastructure—bridges, airports, water-treatment plants.

It would restore Dwight Eisenhower to the Republican pantheon alongside Ronald Reagan and emphasize the center in center-right.

This is directionally correct, although I may differ on some particulars and wording.

For instance: Universal health insurance should be a goal of center-right health care policy. As should major reform of Obamacare. But at some point “repeal” vs. “reform” or “ending” vs. “mending” becomes an unhelpful and distracting quibble. It’s like how many parts can you replace on your car before it’s really a different vehicle?

Imagine reform that a) continues to give subsidies to buy health insurance, b) nudges those who can afford it already to buy it, but c) is more geared toward financially protecting people from high-cost, low-probability catastrophic events rather than providing comprehensive coverage. Would this repeal or reform Obamacare?

Does it matter? Whatever you call it, this system would not return to the pre-Obamacare status quo or maintain the current one, while also moving us toward universal coverage.

Likewise, expanded government infrastructure spending and science research should be part of a pro-productivity agenda, but so should smart business tax reform and anti-cronyist deregulation. We need a ruthlessly competitive and dynamic private sector combined with a modernized safety net (including reforms of Social Security and Medicare).

But more broadly, GOP-leaning policymakers need to look at the actual problems facing middle-class voters today and respond with something more than promises of superfast growth driven by high-end tax cuts.

Sure, Trump does offer just such a tax plan, but he talks about it far less than illegal immigration and trade. But Trump is about more than the substance or practicality of his policies.

Combined with his inflammatory rhetoric and combative personal style, Trump’s ideas signal to working class voters that he “gets it” and that he’s just not another lobbyist-pleasing Washington politician. He’s a disruptor who’ll shatter the status quo.

So, is a pro-growth/middle class/family conservative reform agenda adequate to counter Trumpian populism, especially if espoused by a traditional politician?

I think so. Just as older politicians can appeal to younger voters, governors and senators can appeal to those looking for big change. Obama, Clinton, Reagan all did this. Maybe Cruz, Rubio, Christie or Bush can do the same.

But so far during this campaign there has been relatively little effort to offer clearly such a different agenda. Do GOP voters really know what the candidates would do about, say, making college more affordable and a better value? Maybe now would be a good time to start.

James Pethokoukis is a columnist and blogger at the American Enterprise Institute.