The GOP's Fading Populism

By Peter Beinart
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

These are tough times to be a Republican. An unpopular president, an unpopular war and a trio of ideologically impure 2008 front-runners have left the party in a funk. And running through it all is one debilitating weakness: The GOP no longer has a unifying populist cause.

Since World War II, perhaps the Republican Party's greatest political achievement has been to marry conservatism -- once considered a patrician creed -- with anti-elitism. The synthesis began with Joseph McCarthy, who used conspiratorial anti-communism to attack America's East Coast, Ivy League-dominated foreign policy class. It grew under Richard Nixon, who exploited white working-class resentment against campus radicals and the black militants they indulged. It deepened under Ronald Reagan, who made government bureaucrats a focus of populist fury.

But the right's very success -- the beachheads it established inside the Beltway in the 1980s and 1990s -- undermined its insurgent credentials. As the judiciary and bureaucracy moved right, taking harder lines on welfare and crime, they became less attractive targets for right-wing rage. And in 1992 and 1996, Pat Buchanan took right-wing populism in a subversive new direction, replacing hostility toward the government elite with hostility toward the corporate elite. In 2000, John McCain launched a crusade against K Street, the financial bedrock of the GOP, and came within inches of claiming the Republican nomination. All of a sudden populism was no longer conservatism's weapon against the American left but a dagger facing inward, threatening the GOP itself.

For a time after Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush solved the problem. Regardless of their views on corporate power, conservatives rallied to his war on terrorism. And in framing America's new foreign policy debate, the president skillfully employed populist themes. On civil liberties, he identified his political opponents with procedural niceties -- legal and bureaucratic arcana -- while vowing that he would do whatever it took to prevent another attack. And he accused the Democrats of excessive concern with international opinion, of seeking a "permission slip" before they would defend America. His foreign policy message was simple and intuitive. It embodied what Walter Russell Mead has called "Jacksonianism," the foreign-policy folk wisdom of the American people, which craves strong leaders, simple answers and ruthless force to defend the nation when danger is near.

Republican presidential hopefuls would love to revive Bush's formula. But it has collapsed. After America invaded Iraq, the absence of weapons of mass destruction forced Bush to shift his rationale for the war, focusing less on the threat from Saddam Hussein than on the war's potential to transform the Middle East. Thus, a once gut-level argument assumed Rube Goldberg complexity and left Republicans in the position of placing American security in foreign hands: those of the Iraqis. Today, it is Republicans who are calling for patience, responsibility and cultural understanding, while Democrats make the simple, intuitive claim: We can't solve Iraq's problems; only Iraqis can.

The entire subject of terrorism, which Bush wielded so effectively in the 2004 campaign, has receded in the absence of another attack on U.S. soil. And with public fear declining, Americans are less willing to sacrifice civil liberties in national security's name. Thus, another key element of post-Sept. 11 conservative populism has withered. In 2006, the Bush administration tried repeatedly to make its National Security Agency surveillance program a campaign issue, hoping to force Democrats into complex procedural arguments while identifying the GOP with Jack Bauer-style, pull-out-all-the-stops anti-terrorism. But the issue fell flat, and absent another attack, it will probably do so again in 2008.

Conservative populism is not dead. But with the war on terrorism no longer rallying the right-wing base, that base is turning -- as it did in the 1990s -- against corporations. The first sign came in February 2006, when the Bush administration provoked a populist hailstorm by supporting a Dubai company's plans to manage six U.S. ports. The political backlash -- stoked not merely by Democrats but also by conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity -- combined distrust of foreigners and corporate elites. And in this way, it presaged the current, much bigger, conservative revolt on immigration. In the past two years, with Iraq going south, immigration has become the hottest issue among conservative activists. But unlike terrorism, it is a doubled-edged sword, wielded against pro-immigration Democrats but also against the pro-immigration corporate right, which largely funds the GOP.

Already, polls show a distinct passion gap in 2008, with Republicans far less excited than Democrats about their candidates. The GOP badly needs a cause that can mobilize its base. At key moments over the past 60 years, hostility toward cultural and political elites has done that. But today, with the culture war at a low ebb and the Iraq war a national disaster, the elites with whom Republicans seem most enraged are their own.

Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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