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The Beltway Burkeans vs. Heartland Populists

The Beltway Burkeans vs. Heartland Populists

By Ben Domenech - July 2, 2013

Watch Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s video concerning his 2016 agenda, if only for the part where he pauses to take a drink from his union skull chalice. The moderate Midwestern tone here drones a bit – dynamic this isn’t – but look at how he’s marketing his legislative agenda in the frame of the 2016 run he’s almost certain to make: it’s all lower- and middle-income focused. It’s worth considering why Walker won his recall election – it was in not insignificant ways due to these voters, who gave him more support than might be expected given his conservative views (he even got 38% of the overall union vote, though of course that was more from the private sector unions). He touts one of the largest tax cuts in Wisconsin history, with a larger tax rate cut for those making 15-50k; teases his higher ed reforms; follows Bobby Jindal’s lead in pursuing a statewide expansion of school choice; spins the Medicaid expansion refusal handily; and even talks up federal deficit reduction. Walker is still getting slammed by all the usual suspects – for cutting entitlements, passing tax cuts for the rich, and sneaking through what one legislator called “vouchers on steroids” – he’s just savvier at pitching it.

Now, set that aside for a moment, and consider Michael Gerson’s recent remarks about Rand Paul in Aspen. “Gerson went on to argue that Paul won't be able to lead the Republican Party to victory, because he can't solve the most challenging political problem facing it: addressing the concerns of working class voters. "We have an economy that is continually stagnant for them, no matter what the situation is in the broader economy, and with new Americans who are concerned with social mobility," he said. "One of the most extraordinary facts that came out of the great recession was that in the worst days of the great recession, people with a four-year college degree have a 4.5 percent unemployment rate. People with just a high-school degree had a 24 percent unemployment rate. We're an economy that's increasingly segregated by class based on things like skills, education, family structure, a lot of things that have to do with social capital. The question is, are Republicans going to speak to the lived experience of the Americans they need to appeal to on the economy? I don't think libertarianism speaks to those concerns effectively.”

This seems short-sighted to me. As Sean Trende noted recently, the GOP does have a significant choice to make about the path forward on framing policy for the 2016 cycle. It can abandon its corporatist leanings and adopt the message of a more populist party which aims at the Jacksonian coal country whites, or it can double down on the white suburbanite model, pass immigration reform to appeal to Hispanics, appeal to upscale environmentalists by embracing cuts to emissions and considering carbon taxes, and offer efficiencies and streamlined government as the key to its electoral strategy (as opposed to an agenda afterthought, as they are in Walker’s video).

In their March piece in Commentary, Gerson and Pete Wehner went for all of these points with gusto. Gerson’s criticism of Paul, and libertarian-ish conservatism generally, is that it won’t address his first point from that piece – the economic challenges of working and middle class Americans. But the rest of his prescribed agenda doesn’t go toward that populist aim any more than Gerson’s support for getting involved in even more international conflicts. It seems very unlikely to me that shoving through the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, expanding environmental and anti-emission regulations, guilt-ridding prison reform, trying to convince Hollywood to promote marriage and family, and making the case for getting involved in Syria is going to be an agenda that matches up with the lived experience of Americans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. This has little in common with Walker’s more aggressive approach. Instead, it sounds like an agenda designed to appeal to upper class white people.

This is a good example of the very real challenges of 2016 agenda formation. The Beltway Burkeans talk a good game about shifting the right’s coalition, but the truth is that their agenda represents a much more modest shift, in large part a reworking of the same ideas they’ve been pitching for years. The most interesting part of that Commentary piece for me remains the criticism Wehner and Gerson level against the rising preference for individualism in place of community. But as Alexander Hamilton reminded us, we must recognize things as they are, not as they ought to be. If you believe that this rise of individualistic fervor is a tide driven by culture and demography, not just politics – that it is much larger than any policy agenda – then the wiser course would be to run with it as opposed to against it. A bolder approach to remaking the coalition would ditch the false promise of technocratic paternalism in favor of a bias toward individual liberty and a rediscovery of the populist agenda which can prevail where Mitt Romney failed. Whether that’s possible depends on the boldness of the 2016 field. It may only take one to pull the others in that direction. 

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

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