Where are the Sam’s Club Republicans?
In 2005, even before the financial system crashed down around us and the downside of exploding the deficit during an economic expansion became fully clear, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam took to The Weekly Standard to ask if conservatism was really moving in the right direction. “President Bush’s domestic policy looks less and less like a visionary twist on traditional conservatism, and more and more like an evolutionary dead end,” they wrote.
They called their alternative “Sam’s Club conservatism,” a line cadged from a speech by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It recognized that “the Republican party of today [is] an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement.” To prosper, they argued, the Republican Party needed to develop ideas that responded to the working class’s very real anxieties. It needed to become, as Pawlenty had said, “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”
In their essay, Douthat and Salam suggest that would mean, among other things, orienting tax policy toward middle-income families, passing a health-care plan that makes catastrophic insurance mandatory for all Americans (Mitt Romney’s reforms receive an approving mention in this section), and offering wage subsidies for low-income workers.
Today, the economic difficulties that lay behind the Sam’s Club analysis are more acute than ever. But there’s nary a Sam’s Club conservative to be found. Even Pawlenty himself didn’t live up to the label. His short-lived campaign included an economic plan consisting of:
— A tax cut that offered the bottom 20 percent an average of $23 and the top 1 percent an average of $260,000.
— Vague promises to cut spending and imposition of a balanced-budget law and a spending cap.
— Deregulation and expanded domestic energy production.
It is, in other words, the Bush agenda on taxes and regulation and austerity on domestic spending side. And those same three points — with somewhat different numbers for the tax plan — describe the economic proposals of every major candidate for the Republican nomination. The exceptions are Mitt Romney, whose tax plan is largely limited to extending the Bush tax cuts, and Ron Paul, whose spending cuts are quite specific (and quite draconian).
Indeed, for all the hype around Rick Santorum’s blue-collar roots and pro-family message, his economic plan is a massive tax cut for the rich, a balanced-budget amendment with an 18 percent spending cap (meaning government spending would need to be cut by hundreds of billions of dollars annually), and deregulation. He’s also argued for privatizing Medicare, block-granting Medicaid, and raising the Social Security retirement age. He’s got a few sops in there, like a larger child-tax credit, but they’re tiny compared to the rest of the plan.
So, campaign rhetoric aside, if you’re wealthy and your primary interaction with the federal government is paying taxes, Santorum’s got a great deal for you. If you’re low-income, or elderly, and your interaction with the government is receiving services or support, his policies are a terrible deal for you.
The irony is that though Romney looks like an artist’s sketch of the top 1 percent, his policies are actually friendlier to the bottom, say, 40 percent than Santorum’s. His tax cuts are smaller and less regressive, which means the resulting cuts to social spending won’t have to be as deep. His Medicare plan maintains a traditional Medicare option and, unlike the Ryan plan that Santorum endorsed, doesn’t appear to save money by cost-shifting onto seniors (I say appear because Romney has remained mum on crucial details). His spending cap is set at 20 percent, rather than Santorum’s even more draconian 18 percent.
That’s not to say Romney is a Sam’s Club conservative, either. His proposals are more of a straight channeling of the George W. Bush years, while Santorum’s proposals take Bush’s ideas and inject them with steroids.