Ed Kilgore explores what may seem like a contradiction in terms–Republican populism–on Talking Points Memo.
What’s been missing for a good long while in the GOP is any serious effort to do what Nixon did: make Republican economic policies working-class-friendly. But now, as Democrats have more or less in concert decided to struggle towards a “populist” economic message that can win back some of these voters, Republicans are waking up to the same necessity.
The disconnect between the economic policies of the GOP and the interests of their most reliable voters has been a recurring theme for the self-styled “Reform Conservatives,” who often borrowed Tim Pawlenty’s line that the GOP needed to become the party of “Sam’s Club,” not just the country club.
But as the Reformicons’ influence has grown, their demands have been watered down: the budget plan recently unveiled by Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, supposedly a new acme of Reformicon thinking, buys off traditional Republicans with the elimination of taxes on investment and inherited income before timorously cutting in the “Sam’s Club” voters with an enhanced child tax credit (plus an enhanced EITC for the working poor).
Some libertarian-oriented Republicans also claim to be promoting a new right-wing economic populism via attacks on corporate subsidies or “crony capitalism.” But again, this is at best a syncretic approach, since these self-same “populists” are avid to reduce or eliminate taxes on or even regulation of the corporations they are savaging as fascistic leeches.
But at least two prospective GOP candidates for president in 2016 seem inclined to take an edgier approach to the task of appealing to the economic views of working-class conservatives — both of them candidates who have experienced considerable success in the past appealing to their cultural resentments.
Rick Santorum’s distinctive pitch so far in the 2016 invisible primary has been to match rhetorical appeals to white working class voters with a very specific hostility to legal as well as illegal immigration as the alleged reason for underemployment and wage stagnation. It’s sort of like an AFL-CIO argument circa 1990 with everything other than one subject blotted out.
But Mike Huckabee shows signs of going significantly further. He got a lot of credit in 2008 for being a “populist” initially because he refused to go along with GOP cheerleading over the George W. Bush economy, and subsequently because he feuded with fiscal hardliners — especially the Club for Growth (which Huckabee called the “Club for Greed”) — over his record in Arkansas. This time around he’s earning the “populist” label by criticizing two shibboleths of contemporary conservatism: free trade and “entitlement reform.”
In both cases, he’s mining grass-roots conservative disgruntlement with Republican orthodoxy. Moreover, he’s linking these economic complaints about the agenda of conservative business elites to his longstanding and more-pointed-than-ever attacks on the cultural agenda of liberal elites.
But it is possible Huckabee (and perhaps Santorum, and maybe other opportunistic candidates down the road) could succeed in scaring away others from those economic positions of the Wall Street Journal editorial board that actual Republican voters do not like. And short of that, if something a bit closer to real “populism” than the token gestures of Reformicons and libertarians is crushed by party elites, the GOP could be exposed to some dangerous inroads from Democrats, who look to be far less reluctant to offend wealthy donors this cycle.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center