Where is the campaign's conservative populist?

Tom Schaller says the GOP nominees are failing to appeal to millions in the middle

January 24, 2012|Thomas F. Schaller

If you didn't see MSNBC'snew weekend morning show "Up w/Chris Hayes" this past Sunday, you missed a fascinating roundtable debate featuring the eponymous host and his guests discussing how the remaining Republican presidential candidates might tap into economic populist angst among working-class conservatives. The panelists agreed that the candidate who can do so has a good chance to separate himself from the field, and they're right.

Democrats are more comfortable making economic populist appeals because, in strictly demographic terms, their voters suffer disproportionately from a bad economy: Minorities face much higher unemployment rates, the poor are more reliant on food stamps and other government support, and younger and less-educated workers earn lower wages. But whether one measures economic pain by labor statistics or poll responses about family finances, simple math dictates that millions of Republicans and conservatives are struggling, too.

So far, however, no Republican candidate has been able to consolidate the support of discontented conservative populists — who want fiscal austerity but are also worried about America's declining manufacturing base, job growth and economic competitiveness.

A classic top 1 percenter, former Bain Capital executive and governor's son Mitt Romney, has stumbled repeatedly when trying to connect with working-class voters. Rick Santorum has done a decent job of talking about his middle-class roots, but his resume is polluted by K Street connections during and since his Senate days. Ron Paul is ideally suited to capitalize on populist ferment, and if he didn't hold foreign policy views that make so many conservatives wince, he might be running away with this nomination. Newt Gingrich is clearly fluent in clumsy, hateful and sometimes racist attacks on the media, the poor and the president's "otherness," but he still hasn't demonstrated an everyman's touch.

What none of the candidates thus far has learned is how to appeal to middle-class conservatives with an affirmative, futuristic, more-than-hating-Obama economic message. To do so, the Republicans must break through the boundaries of our dichotomized political framing.

Ours is a political era defined by us versus them: red state and blue, the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the haves and have-nots. These frames work well for Democrats. His personal failures aside, John Edwards'"two Americas" conceit in 2008 was a superb use of the language of dichotomized politics. What a smart Republican candidate should do is channel his inner Richard Nixon by appealing to the silenced Americans in between these poles.

Consider a GOP presidential campaign stump speech that concluded with these stanzas:

"Most of you listening today are not in the top one percent, nor are you seeking a government job or handout. The debates about the capital gains tax rate matter to you about as much as the debates over extending unemployment benefits. You are probably equally offended by offshore tax havens and hedge fund traders as you are Medicare defrauders and food stamp recipients — but no such people are part of your family or circle of friends and co-workers.

"When you turn on the television, however, most of the national debate seems to center upon people who are either much richer and privileged than you or much poorer and government-dependent than you. American politics seems to have forgotten about you, your family or your future. And the one, consistent message you receive from government and Washington's politicians is more like a crude demand: Do your job, pay your taxes, and shut up."

Rhetoric of this sort must, of course, be accompanied by substantive proposals to attract middle-class, conservative populists — those "Sam's Club Republicans" who conservative pundits Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have warned GOP leaders not to ignore. The problem is that the rabid anti-government ideology of modern Republicanism makes it very difficult for presidential candidates to propose a menu of creative governmental actions beyond the stale GOP diet of tax cuts, deregulation, corporate welfare and a sprinkling of small business incentives.

Simplistic, have versus have-not constructions are appealing to liberals like me. But the truth is that economic stratification in America is more complex. The first Republican who recognizes this and articulates a thoughtful plan that appeals to conservatives who do not view themselves as fitting into one of two crude categories could very well claim the nomination.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @schaller67.

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