The divorce papers of Democratic lobbyist super couple Tony and Heather Podesta show that for a certain class of people government is not a public service or a field for settling partisan disagreements so much as an opportunity for self promotion: “As a married couple who both lobbied they strategically cultivated their public image,” one document reads, “and worked to build the ‘Heather and Tony Podesta’ brand for the success of their shared enterprise.”
This combination of statist ideology and insider self-dealing has not left the Republicans entirely untouched. There’s a new political class, one marked partly by its obnoxious public divorces but even more by its blindness to much more important issues—the dignity of the unborn, the plight of the working class. It’s time to open our own eyes to the way their interests are distorting our politics.
In The Making of the President 1964, Theodore H. White described a Republican establishment that included New England aristocrats and some heirs to the great post-Civil War fortunes, but the mass of the establishment was made up of business executives and law firm partners of often-modest origins. (George Romney would be an example of the type.) The Democrats had their urban machine politicians, their Southern courthouse pols and burgeoning activist groups, but the responsible Republicans were men (overwhelmingly men) who made their money in (big) business and then turned to politics.
Today’s establishment is represented less by business executives turned political string pullers and more by political operatives who then monetize their connections. The representative figure of this new establishment might be Haley Barbour, the Republican campaign operative turned lobbyist turned Republican National Committee Chairman turned Mississippi governor turned lobbyist.
Business and other interests pay a lot of the money and exert a great deal of influence, but that influence is filtered through a large class of politically connected individuals who sometimes hold elected office, sometimes manage campaigns, and sometimes work in the policymaking apparatus. The base of this establishment is not New York City, but the newly prosperous Washington DC area.
The new establishment, like the old, sets the tone nationally. Haley Barbour might be from Mississippi and current Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus might be from Wisconsin, but they share the same priorities. When Priebus put together a team for an “autopsy” of the Republican 2012 defeat, Priebus picked Haley Barbour’s lobbyist nephew, Henry Barbour, to be on the team.
Unlike the old Republican establishment, the new one tries to avoid a distinct ideological profile. You usually won’t catch them calling themselves moderates, and what makes them distinctive does not map especially well onto the left-right axis, but the new Republican establishment has its distinctive priorities, cultural affinities, and blind spots.
Two obvious problems are a business lobby-eye-view of the politics of the economy and a discomfort with social conservatism. On the latter point, a column by Republican consultant Mike Murphy makes for valuable reading. Murphy wants a conservatism that “eschews” most social issues to focus on economics. You would think, reading Murphy, that the 2012 election involved Romney constantly bringing up abortion unprompted even as the unemployment rate was ignored. Murphy lived through a campaign where Obama waged relentless culture war (despite enormous and unexploited weaknesses on abortion policy) and somehow Murphy decided that social conservatives were to blame for Romney’s defeat.
Murphy fails to bring up Romney’s (and the Republican party’s as a whole) lack of an economic agenda for people who are at or near the economic median. You would think this would be especially important since, according to the exit polls, 53 percent of the voters responded that Romney’s policies would primarily benefit the rich. The members of the Republican establishment have their priorities. They have their blind spots. They have their story, and they are sticking to it.
What the old Republican establishment has in common with the new is the sense that the establishment represents the only viable alternative to the Democrats. Both the old and the believe that they are the only game in town for realistic right-of-center voters. The old establishment understood the swing-voter as occupying an ideological space between the Republican party’s moderates and the Democratic party’s liberals. Today’s Republican establishment understands persuadable voters as occupying the ideological space between the Washington Republican lobbying class and the Obama White House. What swing-voters want is amnesty that comes before immigration enforcement, expanded low-skill guest worker programs and for social conservatives to either take a vow of silence or leave politics entirely.
Reagan and other conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s showed that the old Republican establishment’s understanding of the electorate was flawed. Reagan-era populist conservatives showed that it was possible for the party to move “right” on taxes, welfare, and foreign policy and win over the persuadable voters that the establishment believed could only be won by moving left.
The conservatives of the 1970s did not win just by mobilizing the conservative portion of the Republican party’s base. The existing Republican base of the mid-1960s was too small to win national power. Conservative Republicans won by being better than moderates at winning swing-voters.
Populist and social conservatives who are frustrated with today’s Republican establishment face a similar challenge. It is not enough to beat establishment-backed candidates in Senate primaries. What is the profit in Sharron Angle winning the Republican nomination if the result is that Harry Reid stays in the Senate? Just as Reagan listened to unionized Democratic workers, today’s populist conservatives should listen to Henry Olsen on working-class whites and Artur Davis on middle-class African-Americans and Latinos.
This means putting aside political chimeras like flat taxes and focusing instead on conservative policies that will directly benefit working families around the median income. It means making immigration work for working families of all races and ethnicities even if it means that some businesses will end up paying higher wages to lower-skill workers. And the great advantage of the new Republican establishment is their claim that only they are able appeal to swing-voters. Populist and social conservatives can beat the establishment by showing that they are not only more principled than the establishment, but that they are also smarter and more realistic about how to win the persuadable voters who decide elections.