Conservative populism can't catch a break. The party's elites have a stranglehold on policy. As Reihan Salam has pointed out, most Republicans are opposed to increasing immigration, but most Republican office holders favor vastly increasing immigration when they think the voters aren't looking. Only about one-third of Republicans favor tax cuts on the wealthy, but all the Republican candidates favor sharply lower taxes on the rich. What is worse, even when Republican politicians try to appeal to populist conservatives, they fail miserably at crafting a message and an agenda aimed at wage-earners. This has left the field open for a charlatan like Donald Trump.
At one point Cruz hoped that he could be the candidate of rebellious populists. Given the exit polls in Iowa and South Carolina, it looks more like Cruz has made himself the candidate of college-educated evangelical Christians. That isn't nearly enough to win the nomination—much less the presidency.
This failure is largely of Cruz's own making. Cruz joined his party's populists on one major issue. He opposed the Gang of Eight immigration bill that provided upfront amnesty, delayed immigration enforcement, and vastly increased low-skill immigration.
That was all to the good for winning his party's populists, but that was all he had. Cruz's tax plan was for a 10 percent flat tax and a 16 value-added tax (a tax on consumption—and lower-earning people devote a larger share of their income to consumption of necessities.) It is probably to Cruz's benefit that most voters don't know what a value-added tax is.
Cruz was a determined and flamboyant opponent of Obamacare, but when asked what would happen to the millions of people who were now dependent on the Obamacare exchanges for their health insurance, Cruz said some things about allowing the purchase of health care across state lines and something about portability of health care, but there was nothing even remotely specific about the people whose health insurance would be threatened. This was a bad contrast to Donald Trump, who at least promised that he would not let people die in the streets.
Cruz's populist problem was not simply about policy. It was also a style problem. At the most recent debate, Cruz hit Trump for the (alleged) billionaire's support of public funding for Planned Parenthood. Trump countered that Planned Parenthood did many good things. Like a good lawyer, Cruz thought he had won the exchange by getting Trump to admit that he supported Planned Parenthood. No, Cruz had not won the exchange. Many people, even many Republicans, think of Planned Parenthood as the place to go to get the contraceptive pill. The argument needs to be made that Planned Parenthood is an abortion provider and that the money spent on Planned Parenthood could be used to fund women's health clinics instead. Cruz didn't make the case because he treats political behavior as a series of boxes to be checked. Cruz's style is abstract to the point of being airless, and it makes those rare occasions when he shows real emotion (like when discussing his drug-addicted sister) that much more striking.
Marco Rubio's populist problem is more interesting than Cruz's. Rubio tried to put together an agenda that would tangibly benefit wage-earners. He proposed wage subsidies to encourage work among those people who are (however temporarily) working at the lowest-paying jobs. He proposed an expanded child tax credit that would reduce the payroll tax liabilities of the middle-class and poor working parents. He proposed using tax credits for the purchase of health insurance so that people would not be left out in the cold if and when Obamacare was repealed.
Then Rubio threw it all away. He tried to play to his party's elites. He reversed himself on immigration and supported upfront amnesty. A Rubio aide who was trying to sell expanding low-skill guest worker programs explained that American workers “can't cut it.” Rubio surrounded his plans to cut taxes on the middle-class with a bodyguard of enormous tax cuts for the rich.
And he didn't even get the support of those elites. The big donors gave most of their money to Jeb Bush. Bush's Super PAC got over 100 million dollars and its most salient intervention in the campaign was attacking Rubio for an immigration policy that Bush himself supported.
The final insult was the Wall Street Journal's treatment of Rubio's tax plan. Rubio proposed entirely eliminating the taxes on capital gains and dividends. He proposed lowering the top marginal tax rate to 35 percent and the corporate rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. It wasn't enough for the WSJ. They attacked Rubio's cuts for middle-class families because they precluded even larger tax cuts for the rich. Rubio has learned the hard way that the Republican business lobbies want lackeys rather than allies.
Cruz and Rubio each underestimated the disaffection of right-leaning populists. Cruz thought populist immigration policy was enough. Rubio thought he could balance the outrageous demands of the Republican elite with a few policies aimed at wage-earners. The result was that they left an opening for Trump.
At the most recent debate, one of the moderators asked Ted Cruz how he planned to win over Hispanic voters with his opposition to upfront amnesty. Cruz gave one of his more humane answers as he explained how he had campaigned in heavily Hispanic areas of Texas. Cruz said that what was good for America would also be good for Hispanic Americans. Cruz was right but, as usual, he didn't go far enough. He still lacks an agenda that would be good for America—and he is not alone.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.
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