Last week was a great week for Hillary Clinton. The State of the Union was essentially 2016 Clinton’s campaign kickoff speech. Its themes of work and responsibility were vintage Clinton—Bill Clinton, anyway. Meanwhile, the Republicans were doing their best to have folks brand them as the party of plutocracy by again calling for “entitlement reform,” even as wages stagnate and fewer Americans see themselves as part of the middle class. Has anyone heard of Marie Antoinette?
Topping off the week that was, the latest Washington Post/ABC Poll showed Clinton with a double-digit lead over the leading possible GOP nominees both nationally and in the ever-important Midwest. Even more disturbingly for the GOP, she also leads among white working-class voters outside of the South, and among white non-evangelical Protestants. The distance between where the GOP is and where it must travel to reclaim the White House remains far.
To be sure, Obama’s State of the Union was a tacit admission that the Democrats’ estrangement from working-class whites has cost his party dearly, much like an alcoholic coming to grips with the reality of his drinking problem. Last November, the bill for catering to the Democrats’ Coalition of the Ascendant finally came due, and its price was hefty. In 2014, little more than one-third of white voters without college degrees voted to send a Democrat to Congress, and the effects of working-class rejection were devastating.
The Democrats lost control of the Senate, while Republicans picked up 13 House seats, gaining their largest majority since 1928. At the state level, the results were equally grim for the Democrats. Thirty-one states now have Republican governors, with the GOP controlling the largest bloc of state houses since 1926. Illinois, Obama’s home state, ever-blue Massachusetts, and recently (but deeply) blued Maryland now have Republican governors.
Substantively, the SOTU was a speech that a major part of the country liked, even if it made House Speaker John Boehner and the Republicans cringe. For the Republicans, that’s a problem, especially if the only thing Republicans have to offer the middle class is entitlement reform, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested in the run-up to the State of the Union.
In a pre-SOTU statement, McConnell beseeched the President to “allow us to save and strengthen Medicare,” and to “cooperate with both parties to save Social Security.” In other words, make sure both parties have their hands on the dagger and no one will get blamed.
McConnell’s prescription is a recipe for alienating the GOP’s electoral base, which is chock full of retirees and voters north of 50. Green eye shades and the worn eraser of an accountant’s pencil don’t win elections, and angry seniors can wreak havoc on presidential aspirations.
In 2008, grandma and grandpa stayed away from the polls, and the Democrats won going away. With voter self-identification as “middle class” shrinking, and with two-fifths of Americans calling themselves “lower class,” calls for cuts to Medicare and Social Security are politically self-defeating.
Oh, and then there’s also economic reality. Bond yields are low, with the 10-year treasury below 1.8 percent, and 30-year home mortgages going for under 4 percent. Given these numbers, cutting entitlements right here and now will likely bring more pain than benefit—except perhaps to some of Wall Street’s players.
Almost on cue, Glenn Hubbard, Mitt Romney’s chief economic adviser in 2012, compounded the situation by seconding McConnell’s call for entitlement reform in a post-SOTU New York Times op-ed. For those who forgot, this is the same Hubbard who immediately after Romney’s 2012 defeat wrote, “I have fond memories of summer trips to Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine—for lobster but also for the scenery along Marginal Way, a narrow path along a cliff by the beach.”
Precious. The only things missing from Hubbard’s menu were the Grey Poupon and the Dom Perignon. Indeed, as Charles Ferguson, the Oscar winning creator of “Inside Job,” the 2010 documentary that examined the financial crisis and Hubbard’s own conflicts of interest, wrote: “Standing behind every great con artist is someone like ... Glenn Hubbard.”
As inconvenient as they may be to some Democrats and Republicans, working Americans are taxpaying Americans who have a right to expect something in return for their tax dollar—something other than Obamacare, with its false promises and its disruptions, or cuts to Medicare that have been championed by both this Administration and congressional Republicans. Politics is transactional, and if the donor bases of both parties can get tax breaks, subsidies, and taxpayer-funded windfalls, then Joe and Josephine Six-Pack have something coming to them—especially if they earned it.
Rather than gunning for Medicare, the Republicans should pick up on some of threads in Obama’s speech, while taking a hard line against tax hikes. The GOP should bash the President for looking to undercut saving for college and 529 accounts, and also push for a reduction in payroll taxes. The fact is that most Americans pay more in Medicare and Social Security taxes than in income taxes. And if wonks and purists criticize simultaneously sparing benefits while cutting taxes, just point out that being pro-middle class and pro-worker is about rewarding their efforts and lessening their burdens.
Republicans should seize on the President’s invitation to fund precision medicine to combat cancer and diabetes, and expand that war to fight Alzheimer’s and autism. They should also embrace rebuilding our infrastructure. In addition to new jobs, infrastructure is a cornerstone of commerce. If building a rail system was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, and forging a national highway system was all right with Ike, then the GOP should treat infrastructure as part of its own patrimony.
Obama’s sixth State of the Union and rising popularity should be taken as harbingers of what 2016 may bring. Sure, Hillary lacks Bill’s charm, and the polls show her to be divisive, but right now she’s connecting with the public, which is more than can be said of the current Republican field. To be blunt, Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama, and the middle class knows it.