Which Economic Platform for the GOP?

With the trending Sean Trende and others arguing sensibly that Republicans need something better than the joys of investment banking and entrepreneurship to attract the white working class voters who somehow lacked enthusiasm for a car-elevator-owning candidate in 2012, attention is rightly turning to what kind of “populist” economic message Republicans might be able to embrace that is consistent with their principles.

Tim Carney says it is “libertarian populism”:

When liberals talk about “fairness,” conservatives and libertarians often wince, suspecting the liberals mean more big-government redistribution.

But fairness is actually a virtue in policy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean socialism. Also, if you can portray yourself as the candidate seeking fairness, that’s a political gain.

This is much of the work that libertarian populism can do: through new policies, rejiggered policy preferences, and clear and bold rhetoric, advocates of economic liberty could benefit politically by making this clear: the game is rigged in America today, government is rigging it in in favor of the well connected, and that free and open markets are the way to unrig the game, and help the middle class.

Meanwhile, over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf sees Carney and raises him, saying the GOP should attack the big banks and “crony capitalism,” noting that Republicans are too sleepily ignoring the threat to capitalist open markets:

So long as our economic system resembles what Adam Smith described — the profit motive benefiting everyone, as if by an invisible hand — much of the American public can be counted on to support politicians who campaign as unapologetic capitalists, even if people are rewarded unequally, based on the value their labor is producing.

But if “capitalism” starts to be associated in the public mind with Wall Street profiting by deliberately slowing down industrial productivity (or with Mitt Romney making millions by buying companies and gaming the tax implications of shuttering them), Americans are not going to support capitalism. They’re going to regard it as a rigged system that only profits wealthy insiders.

In the short term, Republicans and Democrats alike benefit by allying themselves with the wealthy insiders. Like the GOP, President Obama has benefited from Wall Street money. But in the longer term, enough stories like this New York Times scoop will destroy Republicans, because rhetorically, they’re the ones insisting that the market is beneficial and more or less fair, even as a transparently corrupt financial sector consumes a larger percentage of the overall economy.

And is it enough to recommend the idea to mention that Paul Krugman doesn’t like it?

But then, see Ramesh Ponnuru on this idea over at Bloomberg.com and recall Hayward’s First Rule of Analysis (“If my view differs from Ponnuru, I better rethink my view”):

Republicans ought to propose conservative answers to the concerns that are uppermost on most voters’ minds. The libertarian-populist method seems to be to start with the solutions and then to imagine that voters have the relevant concerns. And while many of the proposed solutions have great potential appeal to conservative voters, few would do much to expand their ranks.

The upside of that appeal to the Republican base is that it may lead the party to adopt parts of the libertarian-populist platform. (Breaking up the banks, on the other hand, is a proposal I’d expect only a few Republican politicians to support.) The libertarian populists even have something of a champion in Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Paul’s version of sticking up for the little guy, though, includes raising his taxes.

At a time when many Republican politicians seem to feel no great urgency about coming up with new ideas, the libertarian populists deserve some credit for trying to think anew. But there’s a lot of work to be done in making the specifics of populism popular.

Ross Douthat weighs in at length in his typically thoughtful way.  He offers this compelling definition of the idea:

[A] strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of “bigness” in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.

But he is also skeptical:

I see a lot to like about this populist libertarianism, and some of its impulses and tendencies (on pot and gay marriage, in particular) have a clear political wisdom even if I don’t necessarily share them. I’ve written favorably about Rand Paul in the past, and I expect to do so again: He’s exactly the kind of principled political entrepreneur that moribund parties need. And a G.O.P. remade along libertarian-populist lines — more anti-interventionist abroad, suspicious of big government and big business at home — 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.

But could it win a presidential election? And would it deserve to? Right now I think the answers are no and no, because its broader economic agenda — to the extent that it exists — would be both politically untenable and mistaken on the merits.

Read the whole thing, as the saying goes.  And also Will Wilkinson’s orthogonal but skeptical thoughts on the Economist blog.

But as I keep saying when asked, what Republicans need right now is a large measure of . . . patience.  You don’t fix a party’s electoral defects all at one stroke.


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