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Mona Charen: How to Appeal to the White Working Class

The spectacularly dreadful debut of Obamacare represents the greatest political opportunity for conservatism and the Republican Party in two generations. Big government stands rebuked. It has overreached, overpromised and, embarrassingly, failed to deliver. Even if the website's gremlins are banished, and even if Obamacare purrs along like a BMW from now on, voters will be disillusioned.

They will be disappointed because President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party promised that the program would provide coverage to the uninsured, expand the services provided at no charge to customers, cover those with pre-existing conditions, oblige insurers to keep adult children on their parents' policies, remove lifetime caps and offer free preventive care. At the same time, no one would pay a penny more (in fact, everyone's premiums would decline by $2,500), and no one would lose access to the plan they were happy with or be obliged to switch doctors. Oh, and not a dime would be added to the deficit.

It's been said that the Democrats are the Santa Claus party. For generations, they've succeeded politically by delivering benefits and sending the bill to future generations. That is how we've accumulated a national debt that is, according to Chris Cox and Bill Archer, former members of President Bill Clinton's Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform, north of $86 trillion. (Republicans have contributed as well.)

If Democrats had structured Obamacare the same way — benefits now, costs put off into the indefinite future — they would not be in immediate trouble. But Republicans had succeeded in influencing the political culture enough that Democrats feared they could not pass another new entitlement (even one relying solely on Democratic votes) that did not at least pay lip service to deficit neutrality. That's how they came up with the convoluted tangle of exchanges, subsidies, mandates, taxes, regulations and Medicaid expansion that is currently nose-diving.

Because Democrats attempted to keep Obamacare deficit-neutral, someone had to pay. Voters might have thought that privilege would go only to the rich. But substantial numbers of middle-income Americans are finding that the new law, rather than delivering a benefit, is taking something away from them. Some are losing money, as their premiums rise; others are losing coverage, as their plans are canceled.

Voters may accordingly be newly receptive to the Republican message of skepticism about big government. But an opportunity is not a silver platter.

Writing in The American, Henry Olsen scans Andrew Levison's new book, The White Working Class, for clues about how Republicans can appeal to this group. Levison, a liberal, hopes to help Democrats craft their messages, but his research is consistent with that of Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics and others suggesting that white voters without college degrees are more hostile to free enterprise and small government than many Republicans would like to believe.

Members of the white working class, Olsen notes, are "suspicious of the idea that business leaders and financial experts have their interests at heart. ... Well over half believe that business makes too much profit and that Wall Street does more to hurt than to help the economy. Three-quarters believe that a few large companies hold too much power. These voters do see government as a problem, but they also believe that big government is not the only obstacle in their paths."

Working class whites strongly oppose free trade, immigration, and even (by 50 percent to 39 percent) attempts by government to encourage "traditional morality." Trende calls them Ross Perot voters. They don't support the idea of big government, but they believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means increasing deficits. Half agree that the poor's lives are hard because government benefits don't go far enough.

These voters don't identify with the Republican message of entrepreneurship and "You built it." They are not especially ambitious but instead want a secure job and reliable government services. They're offended when slackers, illegal immigrants and other nondeserving groups get government support (and that includes bankers and big business).

This is not to suggest that Republicans simply parrot what voters tell pollsters. There is always room for leadership, persuasion and principle. But Republicans cannot begin to take advantage of the political opening created by the disappointment of Obamacare and craft an effective message of Republican reform until they've shed some outdated assumptions about the electorate.

Mona Charen is a columnist with National Review magazine. Click here to contact her, follow her on Twitter: @mcharen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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