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The Right Needs to Get Centered
If McCain had proposed one, it would have elicited howls from supply-side purists. By the end of the campaign, of course, McCain was forced into trying to depict Obama's tax credits as "socialism" and "welfare." This left him open to one of Obama's most devastating rejoinders: "John McCain is so out of touch with the struggles you are facing that he must be the first politician in history to call a tax cut for working people 'welfare.' "
Actually, when the effect of McCain's health-care plan, which included a $5,000-per-family tax credit, was factored in, McCain proposed giving more tax relief to typical families than Obama. But most of the McCain campaign seemed unaware of this, and the candidate never made the argument.
His health plan was innovative, representing years of work by conservative policy wonks to develop an alternative both to the current employer-based system and to government-heavy liberal plans. Employer health benefits would have been taxed for the first time, but that tax would have been more than offset in the vast majority of cases by the new credit.
But McCain didn't seem to have a firm grasp on his own plan, and the Obama campaign successfully distorted it as a huge new tax increase. Conservatives were outraged by many things during the election season, but Obama's dishonest and brutally effective attack on McCain's plan wasn't one of them. Even though it addresses a top public concern, health-care policy still doesn't move the right.
At times, conservatives seemed bizarrely at odds with public sentiment. As the financial system was teetering on the verge of meltdown, conservative blogs were afire with the debate over Obama's association with former Weather Underground leader William Ayers. This was fair game, but it was never going to crowd out the debate over the economy, as some conservatives seemed to hope. Nor was the McCain campaign going to be able to "change the subject" from the economy, as one Republican operative infamously said.
This is where social issues come in. There has been much talk about how they've lost their power, or how Gov. Sarah Palin hurt the ticket as a brazen culture warrior. But bans on same-sex marriage passed in California, Arizona and Florida last Tuesday, and Obama was careful not to stoke hot-button debates on guns or abortion. Palin's problems, meanwhile, had more to do with her under-preparation than with her views on social issues. The GOP's cultural conservatism is an asset so long as it's not seen as an attempt to distract voters from other issues that they care about, such as the economy.
Connecting better on the economy and middle-class pocketbook and quality-of-life issues will go a long way toward alleviating the troubles the GOP had in reaching moderates, suburbanites and even Latinos this year. It will require refreshing the conservative policy arsenal with innovative proposals that will look more like McCain's health-care plan than the old tried and true, and it will mean engaging on concerns such as congestion and college tuition that have traditionally been beneath conservative notice.
As grim as things now seem for the right, there's no reason to descend into the slough of despond. Just four years ago, Republicans were hailing the advent of a new Republican majority, remember? One of the wisest baseball cliches is: "You're never as good as you seem when you're winning and never as bad as you seem when you're losing."
Even in unimaginably challenging conditions for Republicans, the ideological composition of the election was essentially unchanged from 2004. Only 22 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals. The rest were moderates or conservatives.
It is indeed, as conservatives have been insisting in recent days, a center-right country. The question is how to appeal to the center again.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.