Most diagnoses of what ails the Republican party have been focusing on social conservatism, saying that Republicans need to stop opposing gay marriage and abortion if they want to start winning national elections. But now some are arguing that the Republican commitment to libertarian economic policies–that is, a commitment to an untrammeled free market–that’s really to blame.
From Robert W. Patterson:
In the political big leagues, when the GOP strikes out with the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, the party sticks with the same old roster of political consultants, think-tank policy wonks and losing-candidate types.
That familiar lineup shares one big liability: libertarian economics, which has been undermining the Republican brand with the party’s natural middle-class base for years.
Indeed, the failure of Mitt Romney’s economic platform to resonate with an anxious electorate was no fluke. That message represents the heart and soul of a party that started sleeping with far-right libertarians in 1990.
That’s when President George H.W. Bush — breaking ranks with Ronald Reagan’s 1986 landmark reforms that equalized tax rates for wages, capital gains and dividends — opened the door to a two-tier system that delivers ever more tax breaks to wealthy global investors at the expense of American workers.
Today, amid a long GOP losing streak, the same ideologues are still pushing free trade, globalization and marginal-rate tax cuts. Meanwhile, conservatives seeking to craft a center-right agenda that would directly and substantially boost middle America find themselves struggling uphill.
Many influential Republican policy wonks concede the GOP middle-class disconnect, downward mobility and the waning of Midwest manufacturing by Wall Street finance.
But even these libertarian fellow travelers think mostly in terms of party “modernization” or “reforms” of education, health care, welfare and entitlement policy. When they do place tangible policies on the table, the focus remains narrow: helping the poor and illegals, not the vast middle class.
Consequently, Republicans in Congress aren’t calling for new government-business collaborations that might create millions of well-paying manufacturing jobs, patterned after Abraham Lincoln’s push to construct a transcontinental railroad, Franklin Roosevelt’s mobilization of industry to fight World War II, Dwight Eisenhower’s rollout of the Interstate Highway System, or John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon.
Nor do they see the job-creating potential of keeping at home, as Alexander Hamilton would insist, the production of all materials, systems and technology used by the armed forces.
Fearing such ideas might increase federal spending, strengthen private-sector trade unions or damage the free-trade regime, the party falls back on familiar turf: fiscal, tax and regulatory matters.
So the best that Republicans can muster are static plans of budget balancing in distant out-years.
I’m not convinced that this is the problem. Some might call it odd that Republicans favor libertarian economics but (what some might call, but really aren’t) authoritarian social values, while Democrats favor authoritarian economis but libertarian social values. Where, some might say, is the party favoring libertarian economics and libertarian social values? (Answer: The Libertarian party, but why hasn’t it gained all that much traction?) And where is the party favoring authoritarian economics and authoritarian social values? Nobody is consistent. (I would say that Democrats’ social values are only libertarian when it comes to matters having to do with sex. They aren’t so libertarian when it comes to gun ownership, private property, etc.) Do you think an all-authoritarian party or an all-libertarian party would be more successful?
HT: David Mills