The GOP Flirts With Class Warfare

Will Republicans abandon Ronald Reagan's principles for Rick Santorum's populism?


The good news about the Republican Party is that its drubbing in the November 2012 elections has triggered some genuine soul searching about the party's contentious relationship with Hispanics. The bad news is that conservatives are increasingly concluding that the GOP requires no fundamental course correction to win elections; it just needs to bring back the 6.1 million "missing white voters" who stayed home. 

The rap against Hispanics is that they love government handouts more than limited government. Will a whiter GOP mean the opposite? Not exactly. 

In June, RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende published a four-part series arguing that what cost Mitt Romney the election was not Hispanics voting for Barack Obama in droves, as Karl Rove, Arthur Brooks, Jeb Bush, and others have contended. These establishment voices, Trende charged, were guilty of "groupthink at its worst." No, the missing swing voters were whites, particularly the kind of "largely downscale, Northern, and rural" Americans once attracted to Ross Perot. 

So what's the best way to court these folks? The emerging consensus is that it will take a new program of "working-class populism," with a dose of class warfare. "The crucial idea [is] that conservatism ought to focus directly on the economic interests of downscale Americans," New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in May.

Some elements of this populist class warfare are perfectly consistent with limited government. Ending the corporate welfare and bailouts that enrich Romney's pals by raiding the pockets of working-class taxpayers is something that most people would wholeheartedly embrace. Ditto closing the revolving door between Wall Street and K Street that allows Big Business to either exempt itself from onerous regulations or rig the rules to block smaller competitors. 

But a GOP that abandons its pro–Wall Street rhetoric and rages against crony capitalism is not sufficient to lure back Perot voters, Trende contends. For that, the party needs an affirmative program to, as Perot himself once suggested, put "?'America First' on trade, immigration, and foreign policy." On immigration, that means handing Uncle Sam vast police powers to wall out foreign workers, hardly a recipe for limited government. On trade, such an approach is code for protectionism, which shields American producers at the expense of consumers. 

The proposals by conservative working-class theoreticians would effectively exchange the economic approach of the standard GOP hero, Ronald Reagan, for that of a two-time presidential failure, Rick Santorum, who sporadically rails against the "radical individualism" of market capitalism. Santorum, the socially conservative former Pennsylvania senator, lampoons Republicans who say "let's just cut taxes, let's just reduce spending, and everything will be fine," while himself defending earmarks because Congress has a "legitimate role" in "allocating resources."

 Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, who has done yeoman's work exposing D.C.'s crony capitalism, has hailed Santorum's populist approach, writing in January 2012 that he "makes a good argument for favoring domestic manufacturing." Douthat similarly argues that the "libertarian populism" of politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), focusing as it does on a balanced budget, a flat tax, and entitlement reform, might be fine in theory, but when middle-class wages are stagnating "distributional issues" must take precedence.

What alternatives do the conservative class warriors offer? Trende hints at reigniting Perot's call for "Medicare for All" to address working-class anxiety about rising health care costs. Others ideas include an expanded income tax credit for the middle class and special credits for getting married and having kids. 

To summarize: A white working- and middle-class GOP would be restrictionist on immigration, militaristic on the border, protectionist on trade, and expansionist on welfare. But at least it would keep out those big-government Hispanics!

Correction: The number of missing white voters that Sean Trende identified were 6.1 million, not 1.6 million as originally stated. The error is regretted.