GOP Needs Economic Populism

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You would think, given the massive dissatisfaction with an economy that guarantees mega-bonuses for the rich and continued high unemployment, that the GOP would smell an opportunity. In my travels around the country — including in midstream places like suburban Kansas City and Kentucky — few, including Democrats, express any faith in the president’s basic economic strategy.

Ask a local mayor or chamber of commerce executive in Kentucky or Kansas City about the stimulus, and at best you get a shrug. Many feel the only people really benefiting from Obamanomics are Wall Street grandees, public employees, subsidized “green” companies and various other professional rent seekers.

It’s not surprising, then, that most Americans — upward of 60 percent — feel the country is headed in the “wrong direction.” Most of these malcontents are not zealots such as those you might find at a tea party. They are more akin to villagers watching in horror as two armies, each fighting in their name, wage war on each other, leaving desolation in their wake.

Yet it’s unlikely that the independent-minded will move to the GOP until the party comes up with a credible economic plan that addresses popular concerns. One big problem lies in the very nature of the Republican Party. Since Theodore Roosevelt, the party has devolved into a de facto shill for large corporate interests. One notable exception, to some extent, was Ronald Reagan, whose rise challenged the hegemony of some in the corporate establishment, first in California, when he was governor, and later nationally.

Republicans may now find it convenient to rail against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but it’s something many supported under George W. Bush. Even now, most are loath to fight excessive pay and bonuses at places like Goldman Sachs. Instead, it’s populists like North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders who seem most outraged by the massive rip-off of taxpayers.

Republicans also do not seem sympathetic to pro­posals by former Fed chief Paul Volcker and others to break up “too big to fail” banks or reimpose distinctions between investment and mainstream banks. If anything, this illustrates that for all the rhetoric about self-sufficiency and small business, they remain more attuned to Wall Street and K Street than Main Street.

Yet there may be new opportunities for Republicans on the economic front. This winter, the focus of political debate will shift from health care to energy legislation. Whatever the negatives associated with President Barack Obama’s proposals, Republicans’ long-standing inability to reform clearly flawed health care systems has undermined their credibility. The health insurance industry and right-wing ideologues may applaud their efforts, but it’s unlikely to impress the many middle- and working-class Americans for whom the current system is not working.

In sharp contrast, the coming debate over energy and climate plays to the weaknesses of the Democrats. All the administration’s talk of reducing our “addiction” to foreign energy can be painted as fraudulent, since the powerful green lobby will militate against developing our country’s huge natural gas and other fossil-fuel deposits, as well as nuclear power.

In the past election, some of the few good moments for John McCain came in the wake of his embracing a nationalistic, growth-oriented “Drill, baby, drill” agenda. This approach remains popular not only with conservatives but also with moderates and independents, particularly in energy-producing states.

Obama’s climate change proposals offer an additional opportunity. The mainstream media remain slavishly tied to the Al Gore warming thesis, but skepticism toward the anti-carbon jihad is building via the Web. In recent months, Gallup, Pew and Rasmussen have reported reduced enthusiasm for radical steps to battle climate change. Right now, this seems to be a major concern for barely one in three Americans.

Yet the “cap and trade” proposals could prove a boon to some of the very corporate interests — on Wall Street and among utilities — still considered core supporters by some Republicans. GOP leaders seem simply incapable of comprehending the discreet charm that Timothy Geithner’s collusive capitalism holds for many corporate chieftains. In this, they resemble the boyfriend who ignores the implications of finding someone else’s Jockeys on his girlfriend’s bed.

Sadly, those who do tend toward populism, like current front-runners Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, appear too socially regressive to appeal to the suburban independents who will decide the elections in 2010 and 2012. Americans may yearn for an economically populist alternative, but not if they think it will bring back the Inquisition.

In the end, economic populism, not social conservatism, can transform Republicans into something other than a scarecrow party. And they could make this strategy work, if they only had a brain.