Continetti is guest-blogging for The Post.
Not long ago, Tim Pawlenty was at the forefront of Republican politics. His remark that the GOP should be the party of Sam’s Club, not the country club, identified him with a group of young conservative intellectuals interested in broadening and deepening the GOP domestic policy agenda to favor the growth and development of families. For background, I recommending reading Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party; Yuval Levin’s essay,” Putting Parents First” and Robert Stein's essay, “Taxes and the Family.”
These days, Pawlenty is working strenuously to emerge from the back of the Republican presidential pack. A successful two-term governor of a purple state, one would think Pawlenty would be doing better than he is. He’s competing with Jon Huntsman for the “mainstream alternative to Romney” slot. Right now, though, Republican voters do not seem to require an alternative to Romney, and all of the energy in the party is with Tea Party candidates like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Ron Paul.
The one thing missing from Pawlenty’s campaign, moreover, is the Sam’s Club agenda with which he was once identified. Rather than embrace family-friendly tax reform, for instance, Pawlenty's recent economic plan was a supply-side dream. Politicians, like investors, respond to market signals. The dearth of fresh domestic policy thinking in the 2012 GOP race isn't because the ideas don’t exist. It’s because voters haven’t demanded it.
Why? Two suggestions. The first is that it’s difficult to force a party to adopt a new agenda. The Supply Side revolution in the GOP took years: Jude Wanniski’s “Mundell-Laffer Hypothesis” essay in the Public Interest appeared in 1975, six years before its ideas were transformed into reality. Politicians also respond to the demands of interest groups, and unfortunately there is no institution or constituency or lobby for a massive increase in the child tax credit.
The other reason for the death of Sam’s Club Republicanism is that the financial crisis upended American politics in ways we can only begin to understand. Many of the trendy ideas in conservative policy circles require start-up money. But the government's response to the Great Recession demonstrated the limits of public policy and revealed that the money for new initiatives will have to be created by the Federal Reserve. The era of austerity has altered the Republican coalition, with conservative lawmakers lining up behind massive cuts to defense and arguing over revenue increases to prevent a fiscal crisis. And so we have arrived at 1977 redux, with deficit hawks and supply siders duking it out amidst economic and foreign policy crisis. And the Sam’s Clubbers are left in the cold.