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Op-Ed

America’s middle class is hurting, and that’s why Trump is popular

Robert E. Litan

The 2016 presidential race has become an outsider’s game, with candidates relying on scapegoats for what ails America.

This is shaping up to be the most fascinating – and unpredictable – Presidential race of my lifetime and I bet many voters, even those much younger than I (for the record, I’m 65) feel the same way.

Already, most inside-the-Beltway pundits have been proven wrong: the 2016 race so far has been an outsider’s game: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina for the Republicans, and Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democrats. Even the Republican politicians who are running behind the true outsiders – Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are new to Washington and the Senate, and so they too can lay some claim on outsider status.

But the more I listen to the outsider candidates, the more one common theme emerges from their stump speeches and interviews: with the exception of Fiorina and Rubio, each has a scapegoat for what ails our nation: the disappointing economic recovery, stagnation of middle class incomes, and widening income inequality.

For Trump, the scapegoat is illegal immigrants. For Carson it’s the “political establishment,” a broad critique shared by Cruz (who also blames establishment politicians in his own party). For Sanders, it’s billionaires, big corporations, and Wall Street.

Scapegoat diagnoses lend themselves to simplistic solutions: get rid of the scapegoats, or somehow tax or punish them other ways, and then somehow, some way, all will be better. Maybe there are enough voters who are so upset with the dysfunction in Washington, and anxious about the chaos around the world, that this is all they need to hear. They’ve had it (understandably) with traditional candidates who have State-of-the-Union-like laundry list plans for governing, either because they don’t like or understand what’s in those plans, or more likely, because they know that any campaign plan will be chewed up or stopped by a Congress that is deeply divided along partisan lines and likely to remain that way even after November, 2016.

The candidates who are running more traditional, substantive campaigns with detailed position papers and plans for governing, like Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Rubio (and to a lesser extent Fiorina and some of the others) are clearly hoping that by the time of the primaries, most voters will demand more, even those who are now just ‘window shopping,’ and like the outsiders now.

For example, those who now tell pollsters they support Trump may want to know how he is going to kick 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the country without a lot of violence, while many others may want more than promises that “I’ll bring in the best talent” and use the negotiating skills outlined in the “Art of the Deal” to “make America great again.”

Carson supporters and those he might potentially attract may want more than just the promise of a 10% flat tax and a “trust me” approach to foreign affairs.

At least some Sanders voters, and certainly those supporting other candidates, may blanche when they come to understand that the “free” health care and college educations the candidate has promised cannot be financed by large increases on the top 1 or even 10% of earners alone. Much of the money must also come from the “middle class,” not just to pay for his ambitious proposals, but eventually to keep the federal deficit from running out of control in later decades (a fact that none of the candidates has been willing to confront, with the exception of Governor Christie, who urges an overhaul of entitlements benefits for future retirees in lieu of a large tax increase, a brave stance that so far has not translated into better poll numbers).

Here’s my short list of specific items, not so far widely contained in the candidates’ promised, I’d like to see in any plan for governing:

  • Steps to dramatically shorten the time required to approve any new bridge or road, by consolidating federal approvals, and potentially preempting some state or local approvals.
  • Recognition that throwing more money into dysfunctional public school systems is not going to produce more educated students until we apply to K-12 the virtue of competition – through more charter schools — celebrated elsewhere in our economy. Although the federal government can’t force this result, a President can help build support for such an approach, especially within the African-American and Hispanic communities whose kids are hurt most by the current local government monopolies over education.
  • If the Affordable Care Act is amended or even replaced, its one feature that is now widely supported — “guaranteed issue,” or the right to have health insurance regardless of preexisting conditions at rates that do not discriminate by those conditions – must be retained. This will require either retaining or strengthening the individual mandate (to ensure that everyone is “in the pool”), or subsidizing insurers that end up with high risk customers.
  • On immigration, regardless of whether we build a wall or force undocumented immigrants to leave (a step I personally believe to be unrealistic and inhumane), we must widen the doors for more skilled immigrants (especially those we educate at our universities) and entrepreneurs. Research clearly establishes immigrants to be more entrepreneurial than native born Americans, so why not take more of them, especially if they are highly skilled?

Here’s to hoping that the nation moves soon beyond scapegoating to programs and policies that would make a real, positive difference for all Americans.


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This post originally appeared in Fortune Magazine.

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