Let’s start with the bad news, which won’t really come as news to anyone who has been following this sort of thing over the past year:
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Tuesday found that 70 percent of those surveyed say the GOP is out of touch with "the concerns of most people in the United States today," while 23 percent say that the party is in touch.
So here are three opportunities for conservatives to get back in touch:
It’s a sign of just how out of touch conservatives are with average folks that they have not yet taken up the cry: "Don’t Touch My Retirement Accounts." President Obama has crossed what should be a red line when he proposed capping the size of IRAs, suggesting that the left is capable of making broader moves toward the trillions of dollars socked away in those private accounts.
Obama’s new budget imposes penalties on penalties retirement funds that exceed a "maximum permitted accumulation," an amount that could generate no more than $205,000a year in retirement income. At the moment, this would limit the size of the retirement fund to $3 million.
But, as Amity Shlaes notes, "these lines should chill even citizens whose 401(k)s fall short of that amount. After all, authorities could lower the limit later, as happened with the erstwhile rich-man’s levy, the alternative minimum tax. "
While a flat-out raid on retirement funds remains merely a cloud on the horizon, the cash grab in Cyprus moved the notion from preposterous to possible. Out here in the real world, people are taking note.
It’s not hard to image the rhetoric of "fairness" that could be used to justify "spreading around the wealth" of those accounts. How might this happen short of Cyprus-like confiscation? Obama has already proposed capping accounts. How about other forms of means testing? Higher tax rates above a certain level? How about a straight wealth surcharge?
After watching the EU embrace such wealth raids, such ideas are no longer unthinkable and Obama has already made the first move.
For conservatives, this is a moment fraught with opportunity:
The left has long experience of exploiting such insecurities, but their answer is decidedly one-note and archaic. For the left retirement equals Social Security and other government entitlements. But the luster is off those promises and few Americans under the age of 45 have much expectation they will ever benefit from them.
For a growing number of Americans, retirement means the security of their own savings, such as IRAs and 401Ks. A threat to the security of those funds is an existential problem for the nation’s middle class.
Conservatives need to draw a line around those plans and defend them, while at the same time using the opportunity to talk about the importance of protecting private property rights against the encroachments of a ravenous public sector. They need to do this before the left figures out that it can use class envy to shape the debate by focusing on the accounts of the mega-rich. But my gut sense is that Americas will react very differently to a raid on accumulated wealth that they have to higher taxes on income.
"Hands Off My Retirement Funds," could be masterful act of political ju-jitsu, stealing some of the left’s language while turning the tables of their defense of retirement security.
It is also a natural issue for conservatives, because by protecting retirement savings, conservatives would be focusing on private resources amassed by prudent financial planning (in contrast to government profligacy), by self-sufficient Americans who relied on society’s promise that this kind of deferral would be respected and protected. (Possible other slogans: "Keep the Promise of Retirement.")
Making the protection of private accounts a wedge issue could also provide a new wrinkle on the tax issue (which has gotten a little tired.) The right can steal a march by defining the terms of the next battlefield: No new taxes on retirement. They could even up the ante by calling for the repeal of taxes on Social Security benefits, which democrats managed to impose in the 1990s. There might be even more creative ways of sweetening the tax treatment of retirement savings (I’ll leave that to the budget wonks.)
But the key is to put a human face on the danger of government over-reach and greed. Imagine the return of "Harry and Louise" to the nation’s televisions: "Did you see what the Democrats are doing to our retirement account?...."
You wanted bold? That would be bold.
2. Young people.
At the same time conservatives launch a full-throated defense of retirement, they need to make the case that the Democrats have sold out the young. Think of it as a generational pincer movement.
There are already signs that youth’s infatuation with liberalism may be sorely tested by the reality of the sluggish economy and the prospect of a massive debt load. Writing in the National Journal, political guru Charlie Cook worries that Democrats risk alienating the young by refusing to consider entitlement reforms.
For liberals, Democrats, and others to argue that Social Security and Medicare should not be touched in any way sends the message that we are just going to run up the tab and send the bill to the millennial and subsequent generations. Given the size of baby-boom generation—the so-called pig in the python, whose leading edge began turning 65 in 2010—this is a very big tab for the smaller generations that will follow….
Given the central role younger voters play for the Democratic Party, it’s ironic that so many congressional Democrats are taking this view on entitlements. These Democrats are basically taking the side of a generation who voted against them rather than that of the younger generation that strongly supports the party. As Brownstein puts it, "they are favoring the predominantly white senior population, which cast about three-fifths of its votes for Republicans in last year’s presidential and congressional elections, over the diverse millennial generation, which voted about three-fifths Democratic on both fronts."
When it comes to this issue, demographics may not be our enemy after all. Cool has its attractions, but it tends to wear off when the bills start to come due.
3. The states.
Modern liberalism is committed to the expansion of the size and the scope of the federal government. For this to be politically feasible, Americans have to be convinced that they trust Washington more than they do themselves, their local governments, and their state governments.
Even as public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to another new low, the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light.
Overall, 63% say they have a favorable opinion of their local government, virtually unchanged over recent years. And 57% express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year. By contrast, just 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey.
Once again, this presents conservatives with an opportunity to reinvigorate the argument for federalism and local control. Republicans successes at the state level – 30 of the 50 governorships are held by the GOP – provide us with the opportunity to demonstrate the alternatives to massive centralized bureaucracy and one-size fits all policymaklng.
States can be the laboratories of conservative reform. And Wisconsin can continue to lead the way.