But something else was going on, even there: the search for an economic populist message that might resonate with the general electorate.
Republicans haven’t yet figured out how to present this message, or exactly what policy proposals it ought to be based on. But they’re obviously trying. Here’s part of the New York Times’ report from the event:
A few candidates advanced a concern about income inequality that is percolating within the party, discussing wage stagnation, an issue that has largely belonged to Democrats. Mr. Christie spoke of the anxiety of the middle class. He said that any Republican coalition needed to include the “proud yet underserved and underrepresented working class in this country.”“The rich are doing just fine,” Mr. Christie said.Rick Santorum, the winner in the 2012 Iowa caucus, noted that for years Republicans had extolled entrepreneurs and business owners, adding that it made more sense politically to “be the party of the worker.”“What percentage of American workers own their own businesses?” he asked. “Less than 10.”Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who won the 2008 caucus here, stressed that the falling unemployment rate did not represent an economic recovery for many people. “A lot of people who used to have one good-paying job with benefits now have to work two jobs,” he said.
You may notice that none of these critiques are about Barack Obama, unless you’re arguing that he failed to make things better. That’s because when you start to talk about persistent economic anxiety, you inevitably reach back beyond this administration to problems that developed over decades. Santorum’s message is perhaps the most bracing for Republicans to hear; after years of holding up business owners as the most virtuous and admirable among us, the ones for whose benefit all government policy should be made, it would be awfully difficult for Republicans to decide that bosses aren’t the ones they should be advocating for.
And of course, Democrats are going to do what they can to make any populist turn impossible for Republicans. President Obama and his congressional allies will be releasing a steady stream of executive actions and new proposals on things like paid sick leave, boosting overtime pay, and other measures, which Republicans will inevitably oppose, leaving them arguing against benefits for workers.
Which is why it’s important for Republicans to have their own policy proposals if they’re to convince voters that they’re the ones to trust on economics. Republican arguments used to always be about growth, as though that were all that mattered: cut taxes and regulations, the economy will grow, and we’ll all live happily ever after. But with the economy growing steadily and economic anxiety persisting, they have to argue that growth is not enough.
The current Republican efforts to reposition themselves on economic questions remind me a little of how Democrats used to talk about national security before the Iraq War went south and discredited Republican wisdom on the issue. Democrats were always defensive about it, and when they tried to come up with a new message for whatever campaign was looming, the point was never to win the argument over national security. They just wanted to minimize the damage the issue could do to them, or at best, fight to a draw so that the election would hinge on issues where they were stronger.
If Republicans are to do that now on economics, it isn’t a bad start to say their focus has to shift to what people who aren’t wealthy or business owners (or both) care about. Now they just have to come up with an answer to this question: Okay, so what are you going to do about it?
Many Republicans would probably prefer to stick to a populism without economics, one that uses issues like immigration or the latest culture war flare-up to convince voters that Democrats are part of a hostile “elite,” while the GOP is the party of the common man and woman. This has certainly worked before. But the problem for them is that they are now on the wrong side of majority opinion on many of those cultural issues. Which only means that, when it comes to their new-found economic populism, there will be, if anything, more pressure to get specific.