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The Great "sam's Club" Smackdown... set for Thursday evening at the New America Foundation. (Click here for more info.) I'll be chewing over the GOP's working-class prospects with National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, New America's Michael Lind, and, of course, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, authors of the terrific Grand New Party. The Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti will be moderating.

As a bit of an appetizer, let me briefly comment on an item Ross wrote a few weeks ago in response to an item I wrote about the book. (I meant to respond at the time but was out of the country on semi-vacation.) Ross basically took issue with my point that "[t]he people who fund and run the GOP are simply too committed to the idea of cutting taxes for affluent people and reducing government spending" for the party to meaningfully reorient itself toward working class voters. He noted that:

[T]he idea that every move the GOP makes is choreographed by a bunch of moneymen who are only interested in keeping their own taxes low by whatever means necessary doesn't square with reality. For one thing, the GOP's big-money donors don't all want the same thing: Some of them want low income taxes, some of them want low corporate taxes, some of them (though not all that many, I suspect) want government programs slashed, some of them want deregulation, some of them want regulation, some of them want pro-business judges appointed, some of them want subsidies for their industries, etc. etc. (And there are a few big-money donors who are in it for the social issues, believe it or not.) Which means, in turn, that there are lots of ways that the GOP can remain a pro-business party without all its money drying up: A right-of-center party that appoints conservative judges, opposes onerous regulations, and tries to keep taxes on investment low - all of which Reihan and I favor - is going to look pretty appealing to a lot of its current moneymen even if it's also interested in pro-family tax reform or education reform or any other issue that appeals more to the party's voters than to its donors. ...

Moreover, even in its current incarnation GOP politicians are constantly pushing ideas that have little or nothing to do with "cutting taxes for affluent people and reducing government spending." During the Bush years, a Republican President was responsible for (among other things) No Child Left Behind, a new prescription drugs entitlement, a sweeping program to fight AIDS in Africa, and new (though not particularly substantial) investments in faith-based anti-poverty programs. None of these had much to do with a self-interested economic libertarianism, and some of them, in fact, had nothing much to do with political self-interest either.

A couple of quick thoughts. Yes, my initial point was somewhat hyperbolic and reductive. Not all GOP moneymen want lower taxes and less spending. Many also want less regulation, pro-business judges, and various goodies from the government. But what most of these things have in common is that they're not especially compatible with what working class people want or need. (Though some are more compatible than others, to be sure.) A party that caters to these moneymen will have relatively little capital--actual and political--left over for health care or child tax credits or whatever. Indeed, one of the things that got squeezed out of the $350 billion Bush tax cut package in 2003 (which actually cost closer to $700-$800 billion) was a provision making its child-tax credits refundable for low-income earners. Meanwhile, cuts in taxes on dividend income, which disproportionately favor wealthy investors, emerged unscathed from the last-minute re-jiggering.

The prescription drug program is possibly the one exception here--an instance in which taking care of GOP moneymen didn't preclude taking care of working-class people. In that case, Bush elected to do both. He spent hundreds of billions of dollars enacting a reasonably effective drug benefit. And then another hundreds of billions of dollars taking care of pharmaceutical companies and private insurers. Ross partly concedes this point, but dismisses it as part of the inevitable compromise that passing ambitious legislation requires.

But while it was definitely a compromise of sorts, I don't think there was anything inevitable about it. It arose from trying to square the very circle we're talking about. A Democratic version of the bill would clearly have required some inefficient compromises, too. But they'd have been much, much cheaper. (Though the bill itself would probably have been more generous to beneficiaries.) Democrats wouldn't have felt the need to pay these two GOP-leaning interest groups any more than what was necessary to assure passage, which wouldn't have been much given the popularity of the initiative. The GOP had to both assure passage and prevent a revolt buy two key interest groups. These are qualitatively different processes. And the GOP's version is fundamentally unworkable because it costs too damn much money, as conservatives (among others) have repeatedly pointed out. You basically have to pay twice for every piece of domestic legislation you pass.  

But back to the crowding out point, which is really the central storyline here: If you sum the cost of all the Bush-era initiatives that have benefited corporations and affluent people (mostly tax cuts, but also various portions of the prescription drug, energy, transportation bills, etc.), and you sum the cost of all the initiatives that have benefited non-affluent people (No Child Left Behind, AIDS in Africa, the faith-based program, the non-corporate-giveaway portion of the prescription drug bill), I don't think the numbers would be even close. You're talking trillions of dollars in the first case, and at best hundreds of billions of dollars in the second, which sounds a lot like crowding out to me.

In their book, Ross and Reihan tend to blame Bush's own incompetence or lack of follow-through for the failure to pass a more robust, working-class agenda. But they never quite make clear how he could have succeeded if he'd tried to follow through. My point is that he couldn't have. A domestic agenda that's only minimally responsive to the needs of working-class people is a feature of the contemporary GOP, not a quirk of this president's leadership style.

But I'm sure we'll talk much more about this Thursday evening...

Update: Chris Hayes makes a version of this point over at the Grand New Party discussion going on at TPMCafe today.

--Noam Scheiber