In one rosy scenario, the self destructive streak of Ted Cruz and House Republicans burns out without a default, with Barack Obama incurring his share of the national disgust, and with the public’s frustration over the Affordable Care Act eventually cancelling out memories of the shutdown itself. And in that same optimal place, Republicans absorb their lessons with something like the synthesis that Ross Douthat writes about in his Sunday column:
“..Republicans need to seek a kind of integration, which embraces the positive aspects of the new populism—its hostility to K Street and Wall Street, its relative openness to policy innovation, its desire to speak on behalf of Middle America and the middle class—while tempering its [nihilistic] streak with prudence, realism, and savoir-fare.”
As good as Douthat has been in outlining during the last few weeks why the shutdown strategy is painfully flawed, from even a right-leaning perspective, he is engaging in his own bit of wishful thinking about the lines of a Republican comeback and its worth taking some space to say why. First, as I suggested in my last column, the shutdown is best understood not as some bridge too far from the populism he describes but a pretty natural outgrowth of it. The reality is that the right’s populism has had a consistent unifying principle since the spring of 2009: it is that the federal government is posing an unprecedented threat to liberty, and that it presents an existential danger to a particular ideal of American society. That apocalyptic claim has played out in any number of contexts, from suspicions about Barack Obama’s citizenship, to cries of socialized medicine, to the painting of liberalism as a subversive scheme. It’s not the sort of rhetorical tendency that distinguishes between programs based on their relative effectiveness or which weeds out obtainable goals from unrealistic ones. It’s absolutely a worldview that has made any approach to Obamacare other than all out obstruction or resistance seem like unprincipled softness.
Is there a middle class friendly legislative vision waiting to burst of all that anti government zeal? Not so far at the grassroots level, and not inside the rarified air of various conservative conferences. And as Bobby Jindal’s swift fade from prominence since last winter, and Marco Rubio’s slippage from “can’t miss” status to the mid tier of 2016 contenders indicate, the more potent currency in conservative settings has not been an appeal to more policy creativity or substantive rebranding on issues like immigration, but the fundamentalism offered by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz: and as Douthat himself has pointed out, their message is either decidedly vague on details (Cruz) or a rehash of conventional top heavy tax cut plans that shortchange the middle class (Paul).
The “integration” between populism and reform that Douthat pines for is not a fantasy: the conservative populism of the Obama era has opened a window to the alienation downscale whites felt through the last decade of American politics, when Bush Republicans seemed indifferent to wage stagnation and Obama Democrats seemed incapable of reversing the erosion of working class security. But the right’s most conspicuous rising stars have expended virtually no capital on building or selling any type of actual policy framework to activists: even a conservative with an authentic record of engaging topics like inner city poverty and educational inequality, Ben Carson, has seen fit to downplay that history in favor of diatribes equating slavery with Obamacare.
I’ve written that the populist right’s tilt toward radicalism isn’t likely to be self-correcting and requires a much more forceful counter-argument from the center right. And unlike Douthat, I have become skeptical that it is a simple matter of a candidate with “movement credibility” combining the right’s passions with a more tenable market oriented reform vision. The more plausible fact may well be that a reform vision is temperamentally and substantively at odds with right wing populism’s intense distrust of public institutions. Breaking through that tension might not be a pipe dream, but it is hard to imagine without a sustained case about what public (and conservative) purposes can legitimately be accomplished through government.
And without question, the kind of accommodation and outreach that builds coalitions is discredited when conflict has been over-dramatized into a clash between freedom and darker impulses. Is the antidote what Douthat describes as declaring war on the GOP base? Not at all, but given the base’s demonstrated inability to strengthen the party’s electability, there is a distinct need to challenge that base’s grip on the meaning of conservatism and its monopoly on defining legitimacy within the party. I’ve come to the mindset that the challenge will require more toughness than politeness.