I'm a big fan of both Reihan Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru so I was interested in their recent article on how the GOP can make inroads among working-class voters. I agree that the GOP should be offering working-class voters and especially working-class parents a tax cut. The lousy economy is obscuring that the tax argument, as currently constituted, structurally favors the Democrats. Obama won (or at worst tied) the tax issue in 2008 with his combination of tax cuts for most and a tax increase on high earners. Ponnuru and Salam rightly point out that a 2012 tax argument that boils down to Democrats and Republicans agreeing on middle and working-class tax rates but disagreeing on high earner tax rates will tend to favor the Democrats. Even worse would be a Republican plan that increases taxes on lower earners while cutting taxes on higher earners (or a fantasy land plan of "huge tax cuts for all and never mind the deficit wheeee!!!").
I think Salam and Ponnuru have something like Robert Stein's pro-family, pro-growth tax plan in mind. I like the plan. It cuts taxes on most Americans, and encourages investment. The thing is that this plan does raise taxes on a significant number of high earners in high tax jurisdictions. That is going to be a political problem. Considering the political tradeoffs of other kinds of tax reform that either raise taxes on the middle and working-classes or bust the budget, the Stein plan both moves policy in a better direction and is politically doable. The appeal of the plan to the middle and working-class is obvious but the appeal to high earners is going to have to be comparative. The Republicans are going to cut some of your deductions, but leave your rates low (and cut taxes on investments) while the Democrats are going to raise (and raise and raise) your rates until you end up spending most of your time working for the government. Still there be political as well as economic tradeoffs.
Salam and Ponnuru point out that Republicans should focus on having a replacement to Obamacare and I think that working-class voters would benefit enormously from a combination of a tax credit for catastrophic coverage, and state based reinsurance pools. This would save working-class voters money while maintaining (and in some ways improving) their security of access to health care. Now explain the ideas behind, and benefits of, these policies in two minutes using plain language. Not easy.
While I generally share Salam and Ponnuru's policy preferences and political analysis, I think that any move by the GOP toward their kind of agenda will have to be very, very careful. The voters are not familiar with these policies and the Democrats (as well as the various kinds of liberal-leaning media that most swing voters consume) will do their best to distort reformist conservative policies. That doesn't mean public spirited conservative politicians shouldn't support these kinds of policies. They should! But defending these kinds of policies will be mentally taxing work.
I remember reading about how when John Roberts was an appellate lawyer, he would spend weeks trying to imagine all the objections that Supreme Court Justices and opposing counsel might offer to his arguments. Roberts would then carefully, over weeks and sometimes months, craft concise and convincing answers and commit them to heart. Reformist conservative politicians will have to learn from Roberts' example if they are going to win the future.