In policy terms, the new, economically oriented right isn’t all that coherent. It doesn’t make much sense to launch a jihad against deficit-spending at the very moment when deficit-spending (along with monetary stimulus) is the only thing standing between America and an unemployment rate high enough to apply for a driver’s license. But politically, there are advantages to the right’s new economic focus. The GOP’s emphasis on social issues played well in the South, but it hurt the party in the libertarian West, where Democrats have made major gains. It also contributed to the party’s near-extinction in the Northeast, where even many Republicans can’t stand Southern-fried fundamentalism. It’s no coincidence that both Chris Christie, who yesterday won the governor’s race in New Jersey, and Doug Hoffman, the congressional candidate who almost won in upstate New York, although socially conservative, focused their campaigns on economics instead. Had they not, they would have had no chance.
But although the right’s new libertarian thrust paid dividends yesterday, there may be problems down the road. The tea party crowd is ideologically hostile to Obama’s expansion of government; they genuinely (if nuttily) believe that large deficits and a larger welfare state are extinguishing their freedom. Most Americans, by contrast, don’t care all that much how large government is; they just want the economy to improve. If that happens by the time Obama runs for reelection, then the right’s anti-government crusade will likely strike swing voters as irrelevant and obnoxious. After all, the last presidential candidate who told voters to ignore an economic recovery and focus on gaping deficits was Walter Mondale in 1984. He lost 49 states.