Momentum shifting to economic populism in the GOP?

In the wake of the disappointing 2012 election cycle, the Republican Party did an extensive amount of soul-searching, and not just on tactics. Bobby Jindal warned that the GOP had to stop being “the stupid party” in its messaging, but Jindal and others argued that the problem ran much deeper, in losing touch with the majority of Americans on economic policy. “We are a populist party,” Jindal declared in January 2013, “and need to make that clear.”


The Daily Beast’s Patricia Murphy says the message has been assimilated, and that the younger generation of Republican leaders are advancing conservative populism in the 2014 cycle:

While all of the speakers came armed with their own plans for how the GOP can win over Americans and retake the White House in 2016, Cruz and Paul in particular took noticeably populist paths to get there. Cruz argued that the wildly wealthy have thrived during the Obama years, while the people suffering the most have been a collection of groups that elected the president in the first place.

“It’s young people. It’s Hispanics. It’s African-Americans. It’s single moms,” Cruz said, listing the victims he sees in the Obama economy. “The rich and powerful, those who walk the corridors of power, are getting fat and happy under the Obama economic agenda.  The top 1%, the millionaires and billionaires who the president loves to demagogue, they earn a higher share of our national income than any time since 1928.”

Cruz called for a “growth and opportunity” agenda that would help people like his own father, who came to the United States from Cuba to flee the Castro regime, and finally took a job washing dishes to support his family.

Rand Paul’s brand of populism went deeper than Cruz’s opportunity pitch, wrapping in quotes from Martin Luther King, calling for justice in mandatory minimum sentences and laying out a strategy to win voters over from the Democrats by talking to people Republicans usually talk past—the unemployed, disadvantaged and struggling.


Conservative populism isn’t really all that new, and it wasn’t invisible in the 2012 cycle either. Murphy recalls that Rick Santorum talked about blue-collar economics in his 2012 campaign book Blue Collar Conservatives, and campaigned on that theme, warning about being too associated with Wall Street in his primary fight with Mitt Romney. Tim Pawlenty didn’t make it out of Ames, but he also aimed at Main Street with his talk about “Sam’s Club Republicans” and the need to craft an economic agenda that addressed them directly rather than relying entirely on trickle-down theories.

Instead, the party chose Romney and his track record of executive success, believing that voters would see Romney as a steady hand at the rudder who would encourage investment that would benefit everyone through rapid economic growth. While that’s a fair estimation of Romney’s actual economic approach, it got buried under Romney’s “47 percent” remarks that tended to validate all of the suspicions laid out by Team Obama over Romney’s wealth.

Others who attended the New Hampshire conference, sponsored by Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity, saw the narrative somewhat differently. Both Chris Moody from Yahoo and McKay Coppins from Buzzfeed believe that economic populism will crowd out social conservatism in 2016, if not 2014. Coppins thinks that social conservatism has been marginalized already:


At a conservative conference Saturday billed as the“unofficial start” to the 2016 Republican primaries, right-wing heroes Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee competed for activists’ attention with ready-made messages for the movement, replete with Obamacare-bashing, foreign policy tough talk, and more than a few NSA phone-hacking jokes.

Conspicuously missing from their pitches: social issues.

In a sign of just how marginalized the religious right has become within the Republican Party, not one of the Great Right Hopes positioning themselves for presidential bids at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit — an event sponsored by Citizens United and the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity — tried to rally the crowd with condemnations of same-sex marriage, or abortion. And when reporters asked the prospective candidates about these issues, the replies that came back were feeble and vague, and studded with rhetoric about the importance of big-tent Republicanism.

Coppins notes that the most prominent of the Republican social conservatives, Mike Huckabee, kept downplaying the agenda in favor of unity on economic policy. In my column for The Week, though, I point out that this is what’s known as tailoring a message for an audience — and that Huckabee had a different message just a few days earlier:

Well, don’t necessarily call social conservatism dead on these counts. First, the conference took place in New Hampshire, not exactly a hotbed for social conservatism in the best of times for the Right, and its sponsors tend to favor economic issues over social ones anyway. Furthermore, Huckabee’s argument doesn’t go as far as either Coppins or Moody suggest. Huckabee didn’t argue to put social conservatism on ice as much as he urged the GOP to prioritize economics. It wasn’t that long ago that Huckabee argued that “our greatest trouble will be if we turn our backs on God” rather than on taxes or corruption.

In fact, it was just a week ago — at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Spring Kickoff in Waukee. At this event in another critical 2016 primary state, the former Arkansas governor did emphasize a need to oppose “cronyism that exists between the powers of Washington and the powers of Wall Street,” but didn’t exactly stay silent on same-sex marriage either. Rejecting calls that momentum on this issue had eluded the GOP, Huckabee insisted that Republicans still needed to stick to their guns despite criticisms that they were on the wrong side of history. “This is the right side of the Bible,” Huckabee said, “and unless God rewrites it, edits it and sends it down with his signature on it, it’s not my book to change.”

Much of the pivot away from social conservatism in New Hampshire comes from tailoring a message to a specific audience. Republican candidates won’t campaign in Iowa the way they do in New Hampshire, and will emphasize different parts of the GOP platform depending on whether they are speaking to a fiscal-policy conference or the Values Voters Summit. …

Parties do not win elections through subtraction and division. And by rejecting its energetic social-conservative base, the GOP would be doing just that.


I’ll be discussing this with Chris Moody on today’s Ed Morrissey Show, which starts at 4 ET. Be sure to tune in!

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Jazz Shaw 9:41 AM on September 29, 2023