Donald Trump won states very few thought he had a chance of winning, capturing a margin of victory in the electoral college that has eluded Republicans since 1988. Hillary Clinton’s failure aside, these voters didn’t turn to Trump expecting a run-of-the-mill conservative agenda. As the Speaker noted at the start of the 115th Congress, they didn’t grant Republicans unified control of the federal government “out of the generosity of their hearts.” They did so because they want real change and they expect it.
In the Senate, Chuck Schumer leads a caucus of 48, with 18 seats up for reelection in 2018. Ten of their occupants - Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of South Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Ben Nelson of Florida - are representing states Trump won. Schumer’s first action to unite his caucus was to hand out leadership titles, covering all their bases from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin, but leadership isn’t just a title, and our approach to these Democrats should be a heartfelt commitment to do right by their constituents. No matter how energized their base is, the Democrats have a geography problem - they cannot win a majority in either chamber without winning conservatives’ votes.
This is an extraordinary opportunity for Republicans: for the first time in 33 years, a Republican has reclaimed the land of Reagan Democrats, but it took an outsize personality and a drastic departure from traditional Republican politics to win those votes. Trump can’t help his personality but he can avoid falling back on orthodoxy and he should if he wants to truly deliver for his voters.
If debate grinds down on a divisive issue such as healthcare, Republicans and Democrats should address the concerns of working-class individuals regarding their jobs and their families first. Not long after the election, Amber and David Lapp of the Institute of Family Studies conducted a focus group with working-class millennials to discuss their experience and consider policies aimed at helping them from both the left and the right. Dubbed “Work-Family Policy in Trump’s America,” their findings point to the kinds of policies that could garner immense public support across the political spectrum and would truly improve the lives of many American workers and families. For example, they scoffed at Hillary Clinton’s plan for 12 weeks of paid family leave but would be open to supporting Donald Trump’s proposal of 6 weeks, which many would still consider “a luxury.” They would like a payroll tax cut, they weren’t keen on proposals to raise taxes in order to make the wealthy “pay their fair share,” and they especially preferred monthly tax returns over a lump sum.
The participants in the focus group were skeptical of child care programs, a favorite focus of Democratic donors. At the same time, they supported fair scheduling legislation, a pet project of progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren. Republicans must not be too quick to dismiss such actions as a burden on businesses - workers might not be amenable to the concerns of their bosses. It’s imperative we find appropriate policies that balance free market principles and workers’ needs.
The Lapps specifically chose to conduct their focus group in a small town in southern Ohio so one doesn’t have to draw conclusions from the anecdotal evidence presented. Nonetheless, their findings are consistent with those of pollsters and policy analysts.
Working-class Americans want true independence. They want to keep more of the money they earn and they want government to be an ally of theirs even if the overall strategy is to grow the economy. We’ve already seen President Trump dominate a news cycle with tweets praising companies for opening up shop in the United States and castigating others for creating jobs overseas. Democrats, typically the national party of blue-collar whites without college educations, now have a problem with their base seeing Trump as the working man’s president. Any attempt to woo these voters will likely rely on compartmentalization with Trump - biting their tongue when he does wrong and praising him when he does right.
Republicans, on the other hand, have to embrace an economic agenda that stresses patriotism and independence. That isn’t such a far reach for conservatives. A conservative reform agenda focused on working families is the right platform and Democrats would be hard-pressed not to help us deliver for their constituents.
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