There is a lot of talk in Republican circles about a more populist economic agenda. In its best formulation, via Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, it goes like this: “We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything.” This is the classic distinction between being pro-business and pro-capitalism.
This does not however mean joining the bashing of businesses such as Bain or making intellectually unsound arguments about “good” vs. “bad” capitalism. And it does not mean, for electoral purposes, sounding as if you’re reading an economics or poli-sci textbook to the voters. You can be clear and simple without being simplistic. And pretending that no one (e.g., Jack Kemp, Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. John Kasich, Gov. Mitch Daniels) ever explored, advocated or pursued these issues doesn’t really advance the arguments. Moreover, the audience for populism, or any agenda, is increasingly less white, and Republicans can’t use economics to dodge the immigration issue.
There are a few places to start in terms of concrete positions and policies.
First, Republicans don’t explain the importance and value of tax simplification. In and of itself, it is pro-growth (in getting government out of the picking-winners-and-losers business and in saving ordinary people tax-preparation costs). It is also pro-fairness (no special breaks based on political favoritism).
Second, there is sound economic reason to break up the big banks. Jim Pethokoukis persistently has made this argument. By defending a system in which too-big-to-fail institutions effectively have a gun to the taxpayers’ heads, we have fostered undue concentration in the hands of shockingly too few institutions and made hyper-regulation inevitable. As Pethokoukis explains, “That amount of complexity and financial concentration — which has grown worse since the passage of Dodd-Frank — is a current and continuing threat to the health of the U.S. economy. Now don’t blame market failure or unintended results of deregulation. Banks that big and complex and interconnected are both the unsurprising outcome of Washington’s 30-year expansion of the federal safety net and the cause of its ongoing existence. When you combine a ‘too big to fail’ guarantee from Uncle Sam with the natural human tendency toward irrational exuberance, you have the key elements in place for another unaffordable financial crisis.” This in turn should translate into tangible benefits for average voters (e.g., easier access to loans).
Third, get out of the energy-subsidy business. That means oil and gas tax preferences. That means bogus green-energy schemes. With all of these expenditures (via the tax code and spending), we haven’t achieved energy independence or created sustainable jobs; we’ve instead rewarded cronies. The real boom in energy technology has come in the shale revolution, not from Solyndra or ethanol subsidies. Defenders of the “green jobs” myth have been — or should have been — mugged by reality. Conservatives should give up their own pet energy subsidies and challenge Democrats to do the same.
Fourth, focus on generational wealth transfer. The left talks about income inequality but rarely in terms of the transfer of wealth from the young to the elderly. Republicans need to formulate a youth agenda that looks at educational opportunity, debt (which will be transferred to the young in the form of higher taxes), and, yes, entitlement reform. To some degree, the policies on these issue are out there, but they are not explained in terms of individual income potential and job opportunity for young voters. Why aren’t Republicans talking to young people about how Obamacare adversely impacts them? (“Obamacare forces insurers to charge their eldest beneficiaries no more than 3 times what they charge their youngest ones: a policy known as ‘community rating.’ This, despite the fact that these older beneficiaries typically have six times the health expenditures that younger people face. The net effect of this ‘community rating’ provision is the redistribution of insurance costs from the old to the young.”)
Finally, Republicans should not kid themselves that going populist means they can win by appealing only to white working-class voters. The math is the math; it is nonwhite voters who are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Appealing to sentiments of immigration exclusionism doesn’t work for the broadest electorate that shows up in presidential years because more voters, their relatives and friends are nonwhite with immigrant connections.
The rate of intermarriage — a magnificent sign of the decline in racism — means that when making the populist appeal, Republicans must realize that the audience is increasing nonwhite or from a household that is not all white. (Pew found this year: “About 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, more than double the share in 1980 (6.7 percent). Among all newlyweds in 2010, 9 percent of whites, 17 percent of blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of Asians married out. Looking at all married couples in 2010, regardless of when they married, the share of intermarriages reached an all-time high of 8.4 percent. In 1980, that share was just 3.2 percent.”)
In short you can’t be an economic populist without realizing that the population is diverse and put off by nativist appeals. If you talk the language of “self-deportation” and rail against “amnesty” a large segment of voters will tune out before you get to talk about energy, education, opportunity or anything else. There is no getting away from the demographics, no matter how clever the economic agenda.