Republican Populism

Back in January, at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte, NC, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made headlines. The GOP’s loss in the presidential race was coupled with the inability to win back control of the Senate. This was in no small part due to several candidates making “gaffes” which would ultimately cost them their races. In his keynote speech, Jindal, who is known largely for being a driving force in the cerebral wing of the Republican Party, called on the party to be smarter, as a whole. “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” he said. “It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”

The question then is, how does the GOP go about solving this problem? Jindal continued to explain that the Republican Party is “a populist party and [we] need to make that clear…We are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes or big anything. We must not be the party that simply protects the well-off so they can keep their toys … We are the party whose ideas will help the middle class, and help more folks join the middle class.”

Much disagreement among the conservative intelligentsia has been about how to most effectively package this new Republican populism. RedState.com founder Ben Domenech has argued for a turn to what he’s called “Libertarian Populism.” This approach is very much what Governor Jindal has been pushing and implementing in his state. It would be, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “a G.O.P. remade along libertarian-populist lines — more anti-interventionist abroad, suspicious of big government and big business at home.” This, he continues, “would be a much more interesting party, and in certain ways a more constructive force in American politics, than the G.O.P. that Mitt Romney led down to defeat last fall.”

Others, while keeping up the call for the Republican Party to return to its populist roots, have dismissed the notion that the party needs to be remade. At the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in June, Rick Santorum told activists that the party blew the 2012 election by ignoring its populist roots. Spending the entirety of the nominating convention highlighting President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark by exclusively showcasing business owners had the effect of alienating blue-collar workers. “One after another, they talked about the business they had built. But not a single — not a single — factory worker went out there…Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company, too! And we should have had them on that stage.”

Santorum understands that the path to electoral victory is a return to the GOP’s working-class roots; it is precisely the strategy that won him 11 primaries and caucuses. His line of attack in Iowa of driving to every one of the 99 counties in Iowa in a pickup truck (affectionately nicknamed the “Chuck Truck” after its owner) and engaging regular people in diners and shopping malls was what gave his underfunded campaign the ability to break through and position him as the populist alternative to the technocratic Romney. “When all you do is talk to people who are owners, talk to folks who are Type A’s who want to succeed economically, we’re talking to a very small group of people,” he said. “No wonder they don’t think we care about them. No wonder they don’t think we understand them. Folks, if we’re going to win, you just need to think about who you talk to in your life.”

But while Santorum himself has some major handicaps as a candidate, he has shown that they can, to some degree, be overcome with the right message — which he has. For example, at the conference, Santorum blasted the GOP for not making a bigger deal of how much a problem Obamacare is for the average person. “Why are they not sounding the alarm?” he said. “Why are we not getting ahead of this train? If they would, Harry Reid would not be able to get away with saying, as he did this Sunday on “Meet the Press,”that “Obamacare has been wonderful for America.”

Washington Republicans have been handed gift after gift by the Obama administration. Here’s one of many examples. When all seemed lost on the front of Immigration Reform and public opinion all but guaranteeing that a bill would need to be passed that conservatives would not be happy with, Republicans got the perfect cover to let the bill die. The Administration announced that they would not be enforcing the employer mandate section of Obamacare from the date written into the law, delaying implementation for at least a year. This was a golden opportunity, to kill two bills with one stone.

The administration’s delay of employer mandate fines is a golden opportunity to highlight four things that would have broad populist appeal. First, the administration in general has utter contempt for the word of law. The law has a date of implementation; the White House doesn’t have the legal authority to just ignore that. It’s a law, not a suggestion. Second, in the context of immigration reform, with the administration demonstrating clearly that they are not bound by written law, the argument against a bill that puts the security triggers in their hands becomes a very reasonable one. Third, it highlights the preferential treatment afforded to big business by President Obama, as businesses had their fines delayed, but individuals did not. And lastly, it helps highlight how much of a “train wreck” implementation of Obamacare has become.

However, Republicans as a whole have not embraced anything close to a clear messaging strategy like the above. Rather, the most they could muster is a campaign for what they are calling “Permanent Delay” of Obamacare. All that accomplishes is to remind Americans (as if it’s possible that they’ve forgotten) that the GOP doesn’t like Obamacare. It leaves all the potential of this golden opportunity on the table, not being taken advantage of.

And unless this changes, they will remain what Governor Jindal called, “the stupid party.”