Will the GOP Connect With Worried Workers?

+ More

Laura Ingraham, the willowy, conservative radio talker, really nailed it. She was speaking last Friday night as part of a panel discussion at a "conservative summit" in Washington held by National Review magazine. Ingraham said she was impressed by Jim Webb's televised rebuttal to President Bush's State of the Union address, particularly the part that hit on economics. In his talk, the newbie U.S. senator from Virginia launched a populist attack on the Bush economic years, railing about growing income inequality, skyrocketing CEO pay, outsourcing, and the so-called middle-class squeeze. Although Webb's stern speaking manner and improbable hair are easy to mock, Ingraham urged her fellow conservatives to pay serious attention to his message. "The party that comes off as the party that represents the American worker best is the party that wins in 2008," she said, adding that the GOP will be relegated to the political wilderness if it goes back "to being the party of the elites."

I've written a lot– here, here, and here–about the existence of workers' angst and globalization skepticism despite a booming economy. But when I chat with conservatives, they usually try to explain away polls that show such concerns out there. Maybe they're right. And maybe if the economy continues to roll and gas prices stay subdued and housing begins to pick up, those concerns, if they exist, will lessen. Then again, in a more volatile, turbulent economy, such concerns may be here to stay even if all that dynamism makes everybody better off in the end.

So after Ingraham's insightful analysis, I closely listened to speeches by two 2008 GOP presidential hopefuls–Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who announced his bid yesterday–to see if and how they addressed these issues. Romney, whose gracefully aging looks are sometimes compared with Ronald Reagan's, sounded somewhat Gipperesque in that he talked about how tax cuts boost economic growth. (He wants the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts extended and also spoke about eliminating taxes on savings, which may mean he wants to eliminate the capital gains tax.) Romney also talked about his healthcare reform efforts in the Bay State. But when he talked about healthcare, it was more in the context of a top-down, budget-concern issue than a bottom-up, kitchen-table-concern issue. I'm not sure how well millionaire Romney, who cofounded a private equity investment firm and is the son of former auto executive and Michigan Gov. George Romney, will connect with average voters who have economic worries. I note that he may well be the first presidential candidate to ever use the word "econometrics" and the phrase "net asset value" in a campaign speech.

Huckabee, by contrast, definitely comes off more the populist. A former Southern Baptist pastor, he asked the upscale crowd how many of them thought their children would be better off than themselves–and then noted how few hands went up. He also talked about how voters were sick of the "greed of Wall Street." Huckabee went on to say that he favors a flat tax–mentioning flat-tax advocate Steve Forbes in the process–though rather than focusing on the economic effect of such a tax, he told a joke about a taxpayer who feels honored to pay taxes but could feel just as honored "at half the price." If Romney is more Reagan, then Huckabee is, well, more Bill "I feel your pain" Clinton, which would be kind of fitting since both were born in Hope, Ark. (Huckabee jokes that America should give the town "one more chance.") Romney joked about his first job as a corporate consultant. Huckabee joked about getting spankings from his dad. We'll see which style and message play better with GOP primary voters.