President Donald Trump’s call to send $2,000 stimulus checks to most American taxpayers has divided conservative opinion. That division, and the reasons behind it, highlight how difficult it will be to form the conservative working-class majority party that many dream of creating.
It’s now common wisdom among Republicans to say the party’s future is, as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has expressed, a “multiethnic, multiracial working-class coalition.” That view was once heresy in GOP circles, as the party’s establishment and even reform conservatives focused more on winning middle-class, suburban voters than on attracting the working class. But Trump’s success in attracting Democrat-leaning, working-class White voters — while also increasing the party’s appeal among Black people, Latinos and Asians — has shown even the most blinkered party operative that the GOP’s future is likelier to run through blue-collar cities such as Appleton, Wis., or Laredo, Tex., than through wealthier ones such as Irvine, Calif. But that’s easier said than done. The party’s conservative core is generally opposed to much government activity, prefers letting market forces run unimpeded and places priority on keeping taxes and spending low. Working-class voters, however, have always wanted active government and place a higher value on protection from market depredations than on abstract ideas of limited government. Squaring this circle is not impossible, but it will require intentional and ongoing management by the party’s leaders.
The battle over the $2,000 checks shows how not to manage this tension. Orthodox conservatives oppose the checks because they would lead to more debt. So-called populists such as Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., however, favor sending the checks on the theory that government must act indiscriminately in time of need. Both impulses fail to understand the working-class mind-set.
The orthodox conservative view’s shortcoming is obvious. Caring more about debt than people in need is a classic flaw that Democrats have successfully exploited since the days of the Great Depression. Working-class voters will always back a party that understands that they need government to give them a fair shot at earning what they deserve. That means support for legitimate union organizing, protection against unfair foreign competition via trade or illegal immigration, and entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare that ensure they are not impoverished through what Ronald Reagan called “unemployment by reason of old age.”
Conservatives who sought to build working-class support have failed whenever they hewed to these views in times of crisis. Dwight D. Eisenhower touted his “modern Republicanism” as the cure to the party’s post-New Deal woes, but that effort ran aground on the shoals of fiscal conservatism during the deep recession of 1958. Unemployment reached 7.5% that July, but Eisenhower still tried to cut federal spending and maintain a balanced budget. The GOP lost 48 House seats that year and did not win back the majority until 1994.
But Hawley’s populist view is also fatally flawed. Working-class voters have a strong sense of desert and need that underlies their views on government action. They oppose aid for people who don’t deserve or need help, whether they are people who prefer to take government aid without working or the rich who get tax write-offs and preferential treatment to fund their comfortable lifestyles. Giving $2,000 checks without regard to how covid-19 has affected an individual means nonworking poor and hard-working rich alike will get checks they neither deserve nor need. Analysis of the House-passed bill that would provide the $2,000 checks shows that nearly one-third of the aid would go to taxpayers making more than $100,000 a year, and nearly 9 percent would go to people making between $200,000 and $500,000. Splashing cash on well-to-do people is not the way to win working-class votes.
The right approach to pandemic relief is to be generous to people and businesses that need help and stingy to those that don’t. That means enhanced unemployment checks for the long-term unemployed and continuing government support of businesses that are suffering from government-imposed pandemic restriction regardless of the cost. It also means saying no to the vast majority of Americans who haven’t lost their jobs or suffered large drops in income during the pandemic. Help for the truly needy, not handouts or hands off, is both good policy and good politics.
Building the conservative and working-class coalition will require hard work and compromise. Building a generous and targeted relief package is a good place to start.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.