Peter Beinart has an interesting argument that the GOP has lost its populist message in today’s Washington Post. He argues:
Since World War II, perhaps the Republican Party’s greatest political achievement has been to marry conservatism — once considered a patrician creed — with anti-elitism. The synthesis began with Joseph McCarthy, who used conspiratorial anti-communism to attack America’s East Coast, Ivy League-dominated foreign policy class. It grew under Richard Nixon, who exploited white working-class resentment against campus radicals and the black militants they indulged. It deepened under Ronald Reagan, who made government bureaucrats a focus of populist fury.
But the right’s very success — the beachheads it established inside the Beltway in the 1980s and 1990s — undermined its insurgent credentials. As the judiciary and bureaucracy moved right, taking harder lines on welfare and crime, they became less attractive targets for right-wing rage. And in 1992 and 1996, Pat Buchanan took right-wing populism in a subversive new direction, replacing hostility toward the government elite with hostility toward the corporate elite. In 2000, John McCain launched a crusade against K Street, the financial bedrock of the GOP, and came within inches of claiming the Republican nomination. All of a sudden populism was no longer conservatism’s weapon against the American left but a dagger facing inward, threatening the GOP itself.
Beinart’s analysis is important, as the GOP is divided on key issues like immigration. The populist response to immigration is to enforce the rule of law and not provide anything like an amnesty for illegals. The multicultural left and the corporate right are on the same side, while the conservative base and many on the populist left are opposed to the immigration bill. When Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs are singing from the same hymnal, there’s definitely a populist movement afoot.
However, the same holds true for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is not a populist candidate. She’s a creature of the elites who stands at loggerheads with the netroots and many in the populist left. The Democrats inability to get anything done explains why the approval rates for Congress don’t look much better than the President’s and Harry Reid has an approval rating equal to that of Scooter Libby. Framing this problem as a partisan one misses the point — our entire political culture is seen as deeply dysfunctional, and people are sick of it.
What this means in a broad sense is that the fury that visited the Republicans in 2006 isn’t going to go away. People are getting sick and tired of politics as usual in which the two major parties squabble like insolent children while simultaneously using government to stuff their wallets with taxpayer dollars. The Democrats promised to do better and failed utterly. The Republicans have no claim to be much better.
Could this situation cause a repeat of 1992 in which a charismatic populist manages to pull a strong enough showing to change the face of the election? That depends on whether there’s a charismatic third-party candidate out there. (And no, Mayor Bloomberg, that isn’t you.) More likely is that 2008 will be a year in which political outsiders dominate — people are sick and tired of our political system’s failures and they want real change.
The Republicans have a chance to seize that opportunity by embracing real immigration reform, fiscal rectitude, and a strong national defense. In other words, the Republicans need a message. The reason why Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani are at the top of the GOP heap is because both have credible claims of being an outside — Giuliani has the kind of no-nonsense attitude that voters want, and Thompson has the gravitas and anti-corruption message that also resonates. On the Democratic side, Obama is doing well precisely because he has an outsider appeal that the other candidates lack.
The candidate who captures the populist sentiment of the American people will be the candidate that wins in 2008 — and the Republicans had better figure out that their principles are the only thing that will keep 2008 from being another bloodbath before the Democrats seize the initiative. Then again, given the state of both parties, there just might be a chance that a third-party populist movement may figure it out before either the Republicans or the Democrats do.