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Is Populism The GOP’s Problem?

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.

3 responses to “Is Populism The GOP’s Problem?”

  1. Mark says:

    As is often the case, phony “man of the people” populism cuts to the GOP’s advantage again in 2008 for every major candidate except Giuliani (for whom there does exist the potential for a populist-right third-party challenger arising). I’m even becoming less harsh on Giuliani than I was three months ago, with her recently released manifesto pushing all the right buttons despite his seemingly insurmountable opposition to criminalizing abortion.

    Issues will again be irrelevant this Presidential election, as “cultural connections” and “authenticity” will rule the day, and by this measure, the GOP candidates mop the floor with all of the Democratic candidates….as evidenced by the fact that leading Democratic contenders are running behind leading GOP candidates despite the 13-point generic preference for Democrats.

    For this reason, I’m increasingly convinced that the Republicans will win the Presidency again in 2008. It boils down to this for me. When I look at the candidates from both parties that I expect would rank first through fifth in overall “electability” in a national election, all five would be Republicans….in the following order….

    1) John McCain–Despite his problems with the Republican base, independents love him….and will continue to love him in a general election contest where he can credibly paint himself as the stoic centrist who does his own thing even when everybody else is pandering to public opinion. The growing gap between McCain’s defense of the war in Iraq and voters’ wishes to bring the troops home won’t matter a bit at the end, as respect for McCain’s honorable past and maverick present will win over independents by large majorities.

    2) Mitt Romney–Slippery as he may be, Romney is more accomplished at deflecting the “flip-flopper” stigma than John Kerry was. His professional accomplishments are impressive and his decidedly Presidential appearance stands in sharp contrast to any of the Democratic challengers. And just like his positions on issues won’t matter, his Mormonism won’t matter either. If it comes down to voting for a Mormon or Hillary (or a black man), Romney is virtually assured of dominating the bigot vote. He’ll also dominate independents….even in several blue-leaning states.

    3) Mike Huckabee–One of the few social conservatives affable and well-versed enough to hold the entire Bush coalition together. His campaign is floundering badly, but if Huckabee was to catch on, he’d be the odds-on favorite against any Democrat, consolidating evangelicals while charming enough independents to cross the finish line ahead of his challenger.

    4) Fred Thompson–I’m still not convinced about this guy, but he could mop the floor with Hillary without making a single campaign stop and would solidify every state south of the Mason-Dixon line no matter who his opponent is. Combine that with the deep red states of the Mountain West and he’d be 80% there already. Despite his allegedly commanding presence, he strikes me a grumpy old white guy….but apparently a grumpy old white guy who alot of people see as naturally Presidential. And even though issues won’t matter in this campaign, Thompson’s biggest obstacle will be defending a “states’ rights” ethos that fell out of favor in the 50’s.

    5) Rudy Giuliani–I’m no longer as sour on Rudy’s prospects as I was (I certainly am no longer of the mind that he’s the one Republican who would lose to Hillary), but his position on abortion WILL cost him a massive chunk of voters. The primarily female demographic of center-left populists who vote Republican exclusively because of the abortion issue probably constitutes 10% of the overall electorate, and they won’t be swayed by Rudy’s equivocating of being “pro-choice but letting the states decide”. Furthermore, Rudy’s shady business history will make him a cinch to demagogue. But with all that said, he will probably do better than I originally expected among northern independents (particularly suburbanites), and if he can pick off a state like Pennsylvania (imminently doable if the Dems nominate Hillary), he’ll almost assuredly be the next President unless a third-party populist (“real conservative”) buries Giuliani alive in the South.

    As for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s internals are so awful she’d probably lose to Sam Brownback if he was the Republican nominee; Edwards has moved too far to the left to win a national election and his $400 haircut was the probably the equivalent to the “Dean scream” in terms of jump-the-shark moments; everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten what a truly awful candidate Al Gore was and still would be; and Richardson’s early stumbles in the debates and talk show circuit are so obvious that he probably effectively disqualified himself even from running mate consideration.

    That just leaves Barack Obama, who has the superficial bona fides needed to be elected President in this country, but would need to run a pitch-perfect mistake-free campaign to eke out a win against anybody in the top tier of Republicans. A single gaffe that feeds into the “too inexperienced” narrative will destroy him, as will a single comment by Obama (or his wife) that can be spun as excessively “ethnic”. For that matter, Obama’s fate is not even really in his hands, just as it wasn’t for Harold Ford, Jr., when the RNC baited him with the quasi-racist ad that got the media and race-baiters all revved up, thus robbing Ford of his message and convincing voters that a Ford victory would ensure similar cries of race-based injustice at every turn. Ford lost control of that race through little fault of his own, and I’m certain the same would happen to Obama no matter how smoothly his campaign was run.

    The bottom line is that the conventional wisdom is wrong again. It’s advantage GOP next year…at least in the Presidential election. And if Hillary’s the Democratic nominee, the counter-coattails in red states will be so extreme that the Dems may very well lose Congress as well.

  2. Thomas Jackson says:

    Unfortunately the GOP is still run by the old countryclub elites who pay lip service to the base so we have Rudy. McCain and Romney. McCain is a shilling short of a pound. Rudy doesn’t bear up under scrutiny as a conservative, unless you are a conservative dhimmiecrat. Rommney is the Kerry of the GOP.

    We do have Hunter a solid fellow and Tancredo followed by Gilmore. However all suffer from lack of name recognition, something that didn’t stop Carter nor Clinton.

    The best candidate though not without warts if Thompson. If he were to take one of the three solid conservatives I’d vote for him. If he made the mistake of taking Rudy I’d have to think a long time. Reagan made the same mistake with Bush. Conservatives should not stand for another country clubber.

  3. Mark says:

    Thomas, the country-club wing of the Republican Party owns the party. They look at people like yourself (and other followers of longshot candidates like Tancredo and Hunter) as “useful idiots” who will inadvertantly carry water for their pet causes when you fall for their election-year lip service on wedge issues every two years. Even as you rage against current immigration legislation (which I am fiercely opposed to myself), be sure that the power players in your party are filling the GOP’s coffers with loot with the guarantee that a favorable immigration policy assuring an unending pipeline of cheap Latin American labor will get pushed through.