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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Vertical Politics and the Future of the Republican Party

In his book, Do the Right Thing, Mike Huckabee talked about the concepts of vertical and horizontal politics. Horizontal politics is when solutions to policy are figured out based on ideology. In other words, whatever is the issue, the individual tries to figure out how their ideology should deal with the issue. Vertical politics is when someone just tries to figure out what the solution is and doesn't worry about how that applies to ideology. Huckabee made the point that most voters want people that solve problems. They aren't ideological and so they aren't as impressed with ideological solutions. Explain to someone how a policy will help them and that is the person they will vote for.

Huckabee made the centerpiece of his vertical politics agenda his support for the fair tax. The fair tax idea would eliminate all taxes except sales taxes. It would mean the end to the income tax and so with it the IRS. He said that one of the reasons he became a supporter of the fair tax was because he met an individual that took on a second job so he could help his daughter pay for Cornell Graduate School. The gentleman told him that as a result of his second job, he entered the next tax bracket and so much of his gross income go to extra taxes. As such, he made very little extra after tax money. Huckabee saw this as a fatally flawed system. Why punish hard work and extra income? The fair tax would stop all of this. It would also allow everyone to control just how much in taxes they would pay because it would only tax what you bought.

Huckabee was the only Republican candidate talking about the difficulties Americans were having paying their bills, getting health care, and sending their kids to school. Furthermore, he was demonized by much of the other candidates for doing so. In the Republican primary, it was next to heresy to dare to suggest that Americans were struggling. The Democrats, on the other hand, couldn't get enough of telling Americans they were struggling. Furthermore, they promised everyone everyone of their problems would be fixed. The Republicans were speaking in theory while the Democrats were speaking in practical terms. While Barack Obama was promising to cut taxes on 95% of Americans, John McCain was making vague allusions to lower taxes. That isn't enough. Tax cuts must be specific and they must be real. That's the only way voters will see them in their own pockets.

The challenge for Republicans going forward is to apply their ideals to vertical politics. On this point, I totally disagree with Rush Limbaugh. The idea that Republicans can simply espouse the concepts of small government, lower taxes, and less spending and win is nonsense. In fact, what the Republicans must do is apply these concepts to real life and show how they will make the life of the voters better.

For instance, I thought that John McCain lost a real opportunity in not exposing then candidate Obama's tax plan for the house of cards that it is. While President Obama shouted 95% of people would get a tax cut, John McCain should have shown what would happen to everyone with the tax increase on the other 5%. I thought that McCain should have spent the better part of a month touring successful small businesses, those in the 5%, and asking the owners what would happen as a result of this tax increase. What would happen is that they would have to downsize. That would mean less jobs, less raises, and it would mean that they would have to cut back on orders from their suppliers, less successful small businesses. Furthermore, McCain needed to have the small business owners themselves. It isn't enough for Republicans themselves to say it. In fact, Republicans need to seek out successful small business owners and ask them and have them say it.

Telling Americans that tax cuts are good is no longer enough. Republicans need to be specific. In fact, Sarah Palin was extremely good at doing just this. She often spoke of friends that owned small businesses, like gas stations, and talked about what would happen to their small businesses as a result of tax increases.

It goes beyond simply making it personal. Republicans need to have specifics, and these specifics need to be simple. That's why the fair tax is one such idea. No one likes the IRS and so eliminating it is something all Americans would get excited about. Instead, John McCain talked about the vague concepts of lowering spending which would lower taxes. Well, such vague ideas aren't going to work when the other side says that 95% of all Americans will see their tax burden lowered.

In fact, Republicans were at their best in 2008 when they were practicing vertical politics. That happened on the issue of off shore drilling. When gas prices rose above $4 per gallon, the Republicans immediately got behind opening our shores to drilling. Why? It's because more drilling means more supply of oil. More supply of oil means that gasoline prices would go down. That was something that each individual voter could understand. In fact, on this issue it was the Democrats that were practicing theoretical horizontal politics. In the name of "saving the environment", the Democrats continued to resist off shore drilling. It cost them electorally.

It is, however, on the issue of health care where the Republican party has lost all sense of reality. While the Democrats not only promise that all uninsured will have coverage but everyone's rates will go down, the Republicans simply demonize government health care and bow down to the free market. That is the horizontal politics at its worst. I believe in these concepts as well, however the average voter is not going to be swayed when the other side is promising them the world. Now, take a look at how John Stossel defends free markets in health care.

Health-care costs overall have been rising faster than inflation, but not all medical costs are skyrocketing. In a few pockets of medicine, costs are down while quality is up.

Dr. Brian Bonanni has an unusual medical practice. His office is open Saturdays. He e-mails his patients and gives them his cell-phone number.

"I need to be available 24 hours a day," he says. "I want to be there when a patient has questions, and I want to be reachable."


His patients shop around before coming to him. They ask a question that people relying on insurance don't ask: "How much will that cost?"

"I can't get away with not telling the patient how much exactly it's going to cost," Bonanni says. "No one would put up with it. And the difference of a hundred dollars sometimes makes their decision for them."


Prices have fallen and quality has risen in other medical fields where most people pay for care themselves, like cosmetic surgery. Consumer power works -- even in medicine.

When government and insurance companies are kept away from the transaction, good new things happen.

This is the way that conservative principles can be applied to vertical politics. Yet, you will never hear a Republican apply conservative principles to such real life examples. It is not enough anymore to simply be for free markets. Republicans must explain how and why free market ideas are the answer to more affordable health care. Republicans must explain how and why government intervention has lead to sky rocketing costs. For instance, there are mini monopolies in health insurance. In most states, one insurance company dominates the state and creates a monopoly in health insurance. That's because health insurance providers created a loophole to Sherman to allow this sort of mini monopolies. Republicans need to come with detailed, but simple, free market solutions and they must show how these solutions will create lower health care costs for all.

In much the same way, the issue of illegal immigration is the same. It isn't enough to call for sealing the borders. The Republican party has to show just how much it costs to allow twenty plus million people costs the citizens. States like Arizona and California are all going bank rupt in part because of the costs of maintaining this illegal immigrant population. Break down this cost per tax payer and show how much illegal immigration costs. Republicans need to make a real connection between the unemployment rate and illegal immigration. Give estimates about how how many jobs illegal immigrants currently have under the table. Show how many jobs Americans lose as a result of illegal immigration. That's how Republicans would make this issue work vertically.

I think the future of politics is in this idea of vertical politics. If the Republican party thinks it heresy to acknowledge that people are struggling, they will continue to get crushed. If their ideas continue to be theoretical, they will continue to get crushed. Unless and until, the Republican party shows how their ideas will help each voter they will continue to get crushed.


Anonymous said...

Now this is a decent article and I think you have hit the nail on the head.

The free-market lower tax mantra isnt working because of the lack of specific solutions illustrating how this plays out to citizen's advantage.

The GOP has a bad image problem right now. They seem out of touch. Even though they might not be, they seem ike they are. I have always liked Huckabee.

Mike, could you do a piece on the strengths and weaknesses of future Republican leaders.

BD said...

I don't see the horizontal-vs.- vertical concept as being all that helpful or informative. Whether a policy choice is grounded in ideology or not, it of course makes sense to explain its merits in practical, everyday terms that voters can relate to. There's nothing very innovative in that.

The reason the Dems got more traction with their issues may have something to do with how they
"sold" them, but really it comes down to the fact that the Dems are promising the vast majority of people a free lunch. "You can have free health care, free education, the government will create a job for you, keep you in your house despite your inability to pay your mortgage, a clean environment, and only the rich will have to pay for it all!" It may be a load of socialist demogoguery, but there are plenty of people who will fall for it.

The problem the GOP is running into is that we've gotten away from our core economic and social principles. We've come to accept so much government intrusion into the economy, and such an expansion of government's role generally, that Obama and his pals can argue that what they are doing is not really different from the status quo except in terms of degree. And they're right. For example, Republicans have already acquiesced to highly progressive tax rates, so what Republican principle is being violated by soaking the "rich" some more? We've let the nose of the camel in the tent, and now the Dems are pulling the rest of him in.

mike volpe said...

Huckabee's point came from his belief that the Republican primary became a contest over who was more conservative. His specific policy idea that he felt was vertical was the fair tax. Rather than just saying you are for lower taxes, he got behind a transformative tax idea. The Republican primary became a contest over who was more conservative and that told the average voter that the party favored ideology over problem solving.

I agree that Huckabee didn't say things that everyone shouldn't be saying, however, you will have to admit that Republicans weren't doing much of it in the election past.

I brought it up because I don't believe that Republicans are doing enough practical speaking. It's time to move from the theoretical into the practical.