By REIHAN SALAM
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Back in 2002, two die-hard social conservatives fought for Minnesota's Republican gubernatorial nomination. Brian Sullivan was a successful entrepreneur backed by the Freedom Club, a group of "pro-growth" millionaires lifted straight from Central Casting. With his zeal for tax cuts and his privileged background, Sullivan was a Bush Republican down to his wingtips.
His opponent was Tim Pawlenty, a state representative born on the wrong side of the tracks. Pawlenty embraced the state's populist tradition, insisting that Republicans "need to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." And it was Pawlenty who ended up winning the GOP nod and the statehouse by wide margins.
What Pawlenty realized -- and what President Bush apparently fails to grasp -- is that the Republican Party has changed. The rich still vote for Republicans in large numbers, but they're not the party's heart and soul. To win elections, the GOP increasingly relies on socially conservative voters of modest means.
Which is why Bush's second-term agenda is so spectacularly wrongheaded. Social Security privatization (a good idea whose time hasn't come) and tax cuts for the rich (cast as "tax reform," of course) are on the front burner, and an amnesty for illegal immigrants (which would put even more pressure on native-born workers without college degrees) isn't far behind. The Freedom Club GOP is riding high -- and the Sam's Club crowd is left in the dust.
Consider this from the perspective of a not atypical GOP voter -- say, a young married woman with three small children living in Ohio. She voted for Bush because he promised to vigorously defend her family against terrorists and because he shares her values. But she has material interests too. She would like to raise her kids full time, but the money isn't there. Her husband is working long hours, but it's not nearly enough, and the tax cuts barely made a dent in their debts. At some point, she has to wonder, what has President Bush done for me lately?
Precious little is the right answer, and GOP politicians would do well to take note. Liberals such as Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas," have long argued that populist conservatism is nothing more than a con. Conservatives sell values to the working class, but they deliver economic ruin. It's a view that is overheated, under-informed and more than a little condescending. Unfortunately, it contains a grain of truth.
This wasn't always the case. In 1980, the federal tax burden was a serious problem, and slashing taxes for the middle class was genuinely populist because it was genuinely popular. But after President Reagan closed countless loopholes and lowered rates and President Clinton shifted the tax burden onto those most able to pay, the most pressing problems faced by working families weren't too-high taxes but rather the rising costs of healthcare and of raising children.
Somehow, K Street conservatives -- the revolving-door clique of high-powered lobbyists, congressional staffers, administration officials and think-tank true believers that defines the Republican agenda -- never got the memo. Slashing taxes and "starving the beast" of government remained the order of the day.
As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush challenged this cozy consensus. Maudlin and focus-grouped though it sounded, "compassionate conservatism" was more than a marketing gimmick. Or so it seemed.
When he got into office, Bush's real first priority turned out to be deep, across-the-board tax reductions. The second priority was ... more deep tax cuts. As for healthcare, the cost of child-rearing and wage stagnation -- issues that hit close to home for the lower-middle-class strivers -- Bush has offered proposals that were either laughably timid or hugely counterproductive.
Take healthcare. In the face of a massive and growing number of uninsured Americans -- and no, they're not all healthy people lackadaisically choosing to live dangerously -- Bush called for "association health plans," which would, at best, lead to coverage for 330,000 of the roughly 42 million uninsured.
Chances are that Democrats will miss this opportunity to win over GOP voters with economic populism that sells. They'll offer child care subsidies for professional women, but will they stand up for the millions of middle-class American women who want to be homemakers? Will they subsidize large families, rewarding parents for sacrificing personal comfort to raise the next generation of taxpayers? And will they back efforts to curb illegal immigration? Don't hold your breath.
But if Republicans don't shift gears, the Democrats' window of opportunity will widen, and left-wing populism could take off. When that happens, you won't see Clintonian micro-initiatives to help the middle class. Not by a long shot. Job-killing protectionism and over-regulation will come roaring back, and so will stagflation.
X Salam writes for the American Scene, a Weblog about politics.