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March 14, 2014 11:36 AM “Populist” on the Margins

By Ed Kilgore

When I saw the headline of Ross Douthat’s latest New York Times column (“Resurrecting Republican Populism”) I was interested to see how far from conservative orthodoxy Ross would stray, as someone who has for years called on his party to identify with the white working class as its authentic electoral base.

A couple hundred words in, it became obvious that Douthat placed enormous symbolic emphasis on the possibility that the GOP would finally offer a tax reform plan that was not blatantly skewed to provide most of its rewards to corporations and top earners. That’s just a possibility, mind you, given the sparse interest of congressional Republicans—and, Ross fears, 2016 presidential candidates—in the Camp and Lee tax proposals that he finds so potentially valuable. So he ends on this note, which isn’t exactly the clarion trumpet call we would normally associate with “populism” of any sort:

[T]here’s the possibility for evolution here, potentially. By the time the next presidential campaign arrives, the G.O.P. could still be groping in the policy darkness. But between the Camp blueprint and the initial Lee proposal, it has two rough drafts that could both influence a genuinely populist finished product — one that actually answers liberalism’s Obama-era pitch, and lets Republicans get back to making the kind of promises on taxes that used to win them elections, once upon a time.

I suspect Douthat is living in the past more than a little here. Even if Republicans manage to bring themselves around to a tax proposal in which you can see some boon for the working poor and the working middle class buried in the distribution tables, there is a bigger and more obvious problem for Republican “populism,” which was actually identified pretty clearly by none other than Eric Cantor during the February House GOP retreat: a well-earned perception that conservatives do not value the contributions of labor as opposed to capital to the national economy. Here’s how I commented on Cantor’s fears at the time:

[I]f your mindset is such that the only alternative to deification…of big business is deification of small business, it will be difficult for you to develop an agenda attractive to people who don’t own businesses at all, particularly if that requires acknowledgement that labor contributes as much to the success of enterprises as capital. Abandon that rampart, and before you know it, you’re acknowledging the legitimacy not only of government regulation of entrepreneurs on behalf of their empoyees, but of unions! And that way lies socialism, obviously.
So Cantor may be laying out an impossible objective for Republicans in appealing to people they can’t quite respect as the source of anything good other than votes.

Finding some way to honor labor at the margins of the tax code may eliminate one obstacle to the “resurrection of Republican populism,” but it’s hardly enough to accomplish any forward momentum so long as the GOP insists on an economic vision in which people who work for wages are simply expendable cannon fodder in the struggle for global markets, profits, and growth. Conservative hostility to popular measures to update the minimum wage and overtime rules isn’t helping—not to mention the emerging new GOP line that collective bargaining for wages and benefits should be wiped off the face of the earth—is making the problem worse. And these positions are getting a lot more attention than the details of tax reform proposals.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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