With President Obama’s job-approval ratings in free fall, Republicans feel justifiably confident about the 2010 congressional elections. But even if the GOP has recovered some swagger, the party’s long-term political fortunes require it to recover something else: the votes of well-educated, well-compensated elites. Over the past decade and a half, Republicans have watched scientists, high-tech workers, doctors, financial leaders, and academics in engineering and business abandon the party in favor of the Democrats. This exodus has weakened the GOP politically and left it dependent on white evangelical voters. But the elites’ home could again be the Republican Party—if the Republicans welcome them back.
An interviewer once asked Karl Rove to define the Democratic Party’s base. “Anyone with a doctorate,” he responded. This wasn’t true in the past. Back in 1975, Everett Ladd and Seymour Lipset found that university professors in the hard sciences leaned somewhat Republican, unlike their colleagues in the humanities. Ladd and Lipset also discovered that while 64 percent of social-science professors were liberals, only 24 percent of engineering professors and 23 percent of business professors were. In fact, when Ladd and Lipset looked at the 1968 and 1972 elections, the Republican candidate—none other than Richard Nixon, the scourge of humanities profs—managed to “command solid majorities among professors of business, engineering, and agriculture.” Overall, 43 percent of faculty members backed Nixon.
The conservative foothold in faculty lounges began to loosen as the seventies ended, and by the new millennium, academic Republicans had become much harder to spot, even in traditionally conservative disciplines. In the 2004 election, pollster Gary Tobin reported, John Kerry secured 72 percent of the faculty vote, with the candidate also getting 72 percent among science and math professors and even managing to win half of the business and management faculty. The trend of scientists voting Democratic has gone beyond the campus: according to a 2009 poll, only 6 percent of all American scientists called themselves Republicans, compared with 55 percent self-identifying as Democrats.
Republicans have started to lose Wall Street, too. From 1998 to 2007, reports the activist group Wall Street Watch, 55 percent of commercial banks’ campaign contributions went to Republicans. George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Wall Street dollars—$4 million to $1.4 million in 2000—and he nearly doubled Kerry’s $4 million take in 2004. But these leads have disappeared over the last few years, with the Democrats gaining a majority of Wall Street contributions in 2008.
Doctors, like Wall Street execs, have a Republican history, but there are signs that they, too, are moving away from the party. From 1998 through 2006, Republicans garnered 67 percent of all campaign contributions from the American Medical Association; but by 2008, Democrats were pulling in 56 percent, and the AMA proceeded to support President Obama’s health-care overhaul. While the AMA represents only 29 percent or so of American doctors, this is a troubling development for the GOP.
Republicans are also failing to secure the votes of an emerging group that should naturally align with the party: libertarian-leaning workers in Silicon Valley and other high-tech enclaves. Despite the Valley’s entrepreneurial, leave-us-alone spirit, two-thirds of tech-industry contributions went to Democrats in the 2008 election cycle, according to Opensecrets.org.
What’s behind the Republican Party’s poor performance with these key groups? After all, they are often pro-innovation and anti-regulation, tend to favor lower taxes, and frequently prefer what works to bromides about what might be. Various factors explain the disaffection. Scientists particularly disliked George W. Bush, believing the misleading arguments about a Republican “war on science.” Silicon Valley and Wall Street executives have not seen enough pro-growth policies from the GOP to overcome their dislike of the party’s social policies. And doctors have seen far too few Republican proposals to improve our health-care system. This unfortunate silence helped build momentum among doctors for the health-care bill—even though, as Scott Gottlieb recently argued in the Wall Street Journal, the bill is driving many to abandon private practice for the apparent safety of HMOs and large hospital networks.
These elite groups share an important characteristic: a deep attachment to science and technology. So a serious, technology-friendly Republican agenda could begin to reverse the party’s losses and could do so, moreover, without alienating the GOP’s evangelical base. The agenda would have five commonsense components.
First, Republicans should encourage innovation, especially in areas, like health care, that provide benefits to millions of Americans. During the health-reform debate, Republicans were eager to discuss how Democratic proposals would harm innovation, but they failed to explain how they themselves would help it. One way would be to promote the development of lifesaving and life-extending products by offering clearer pathways to FDA approval of new drugs and treatments. In addition, tort reform could help reduce what the Pacific Research Institute estimates is $367 billion that American companies lose in product sales each year by fighting litigation instead of developing new products.
Second, Republicans should work to ensure that America has access to the world’s best technological minds. Throughout our history, we’ve done this by both nurturing native-born brainpower (like Thomas Edison’s) and attracting great minds from elsewhere (like Albert Einstein’s). Our legal immigration system currently emphasizes family reunification. Refocusing it to award residency to people with desirable skills, as countries like Australia and Canada do, would help us attract more of the best and brightest. Another good step would be granting green cards to foreign nationals who earn advanced technical degrees in math, science, or medicine from accredited American institutions—instead of requiring them to leave the country and apply for reentry, as we do now. This change would take advantage of America’s top-flight universities and mask the weakness of our K–12 educational system. According to U.S. News and World Report, America has 13 of the world’s best 20 universities, and students from around the world clamor to attend them.
The failed Kennedy-McCain immigration-reform bill of 2005 did create a points system for those with certain education or employment credentials. Unfortunately, the skills-based features of the bill were lost in the larger battle over illegal immigration. Republicans should try to divorce this issue—which divides the party—from the potentially unifying one of encouraging skilled legal immigrants. The GOP could then draw a sharp contrast with Democrats, who tend to oppose skills-based immigration.
The third way that Republicans can regain the elite, tech-friendly votes that they’ve lost is recommitting themselves to free trade. In the past, Republicans were overwhelmingly in favor of free trade and could find enough like-minded Democrats to pass multilateral and bilateral trade agreements, NAFTA being the most famous example. Nowadays, Democrats generally resist free trade and cooperate with enough protectionist Republicans to block free-trade agreements, regardless of who controls Congress.
President Bush must take some of the blame for this reversal, especially by imposing steel tariffs during his first term, fulfilling a campaign promise made in West Virginia. On the other hand, he did promote bilateral agreements to jump-start free trade while cumbersome multilateral negotiations like the World Trade Organization’s Doha round dragged on. President Obama, for his part, has been largely unfriendly to free trade, imposing a fee on imported tires from China, for example. According to the Washington Post, the Chinese unsurprisingly saw this as “a political concession to U.S. labor unions” and retaliated, worsening trade tensions between the two countries. Incidents like these have given Republicans an opportunity to rediscover their inner David Ricardo.
Fourth, Republicans should capitalize on the Democrats’ recent spending spree, which has opened the door for a message about fiscal discipline. It’s true that cutting personal income taxes no longer has the resonance it once did, since only 47 percent of Americans pay any federal income tax. (When I served in the Bush White House, I worked on policy papers bragging that the president’s tax cuts took 5 million Americans off the income-tax rolls; what the papers didn’t say was that this change made 5 million more Americans uninterested in what had been the GOP’s strongest talking point.) But the party should not retreat on other questions of taxation and especially budgets. Innovation-centered voters understand that our current fiscal path of $1.4 trillion deficits is unsustainable. Republicans need to issue a mea culpa for their past contributions to the nation’s fiscal problems and articulate a serious plan for digging us out of our crushing debt hole.
At the same time, Republicans should promote tax simplification, as President Reagan did in 1986. Administering the 67,500-page federal income-tax code requires 100,000 IRS employees and costs our economy between 2 and 5 percent of GDP in lost efficiency, according to the Government Accountability Office. Limiting the number of rates and loopholes, while increasing the standard deduction, would help reduce these inefficiencies and costs. Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire have created a bipartisan proposal along these lines, and Republicans should make sure that they remain out front with other tax-simplification proposals.
Fifth, Republicans should put improving our educational system front and center, so that we can increase the number of high-skilled workers. One way to do this is to use Title I, which is supposed to help educate 10 million poor children and to promote flexibility and better educational outcomes. Republicans used to support Title I “portability”—that is, attaching Title I dollars to students rather than linking them to a bureaucratic formula that rewards specific schools, regardless of performance. Republicans dropped this idea as a concession to Democrats during the No Child Left Behind negotiations, but they can pick it up again. Having Title I’s $14 billion follow our neediest children will encourage schools to be accountable to parents and allow parents to direct money to schools that work best, whether public or private.
This reform would have a number of political advantages. The recently oversubscribed school choice experiment in the District of Columbia shows that parents, regardless of their ideology, want more of a say in the kind of education their children receive. As many as four in ten parents already send a child to a school other than their local public one. More to the point for political purposes is that well-educated voters, including business leaders, recognize how our deficient K–12 system harms American competitiveness by consigning poor kids to failing schools.
Not only would this five-part agenda appeal to the highly educated, high-income voters who once backed the GOP; it also couldn’t be replicated by the Democratic Party because of the interest-group politics that govern so many Democratic policy choices. Democrats can’t back tort reform, for example, because trial lawyers would balk. They can’t advocate free trade or high-skilled immigration because of labor unions’ objections. School choice, even within public schools, is anathema to the Democrat-supporting teachers’ unions. Budget discipline gets in the way of ambitious Democratic spending plans.
An agenda that joins pro-technology voters to the GOP’s evangelical base would make the party truly formidable electorally. And it would do something far more important: it would help America maintain its technological supremacy going forward.