Mission Impossible?

Noam Scheiber on the GOP and the Sam's Club agenda:

There may some day be a political party oriented toward working class voters whose ideological stance resembles Sam's Club-ism. But I don't think that party's going to be the GOP. (Nor will it be the Democratic Party--I think one or both of the major parties would have to die off and be replaced by this future party.)The people who fund and run the GOP are simply too committed to the idea of cutting taxes for affluent people and reducing government spending--basically the opposite of what Ross and Reihan propose. In fact, even saying the GOP estabilshment is "committed" to these things understates the grip of economic libertarianism over the party. It suggests a worldview that's the product of some reflection, when in fact the economic libertarianism of big GOP donors is mostly an expression of their self-interest--i.e., they want to keep their own taxes low. The idea that a party structured this way would embrace policies directly at odds with this mission is really tough to imagine. Which is why, for example, Mike Huckabee's candidacy was doomed the second he started attacking the "Wall Street-Washington axis."

Having said all that, these guys are right: The GOP is absolutely screwed. Even though the money comes from the same place it has for decades, the votes increasingly come from socially-conservative working-class people. At some point something's got to give. I just think it's going to be the GOP--which will basically cease to exist--rather than the moneymen and powerbrokers.

This strikes me as wildly overstated. Does the GOP have powerful interest groups that would resist some of the reforms we’re talking about? Sure. Is it hard to win the Republican primary while campaigning explicitly - and clumsily - against some of those interest groups? Sure again (though Huckabee did win quite a few primaries, and his eventual loss had at least as much to do with his failure to break out among non-evangelical voters as with the populist tack he took). Is the GOP going to morph into a soak-the-rich, pro-regulation party? Of course not - and I wouldn't be happy if it did! But the idea that every move the GOP makes is choreographed by a bunch of moneymen who are only interested in keeping their own taxes low by whatever means necessary doesn't square with reality. For one thing, the GOP's big-money donors don't all want the same thing: Some of them want low income taxes, some of them want low corporate taxes, some of them (though not all that many, I suspect) want government programs slashed, some of them want deregulation, some of them want regulation, some of them want pro-business judges appointed, some of them want subsidies for their industries, etc. etc. (And there are a few big-money donors who are in it for the social issues, believe it or not.) Which means, in turn, that there are lots of ways that the GOP can remain a pro-business party without all its money drying up: A right-of-center party that appoints conservative judges, opposes onerous regulations, and tries to keep taxes on investment low - all of which Reihan and I favor - is going to look pretty appealing to a lot of its current moneymen even if it's also interested in pro-family tax reform or education reform or any other issue that appeals more to the party's voters than to its donors. (And all of this is leaving aside the extent to which the Obama/Paul model of internet fundraising may make the old "big donor" approach to funding campaigns obsolete anyway.)

Moreover, even in its current incarnation GOP politicians are constantly pushing ideas that have little or nothing to do with "cutting taxes for affluent people and reducing government spending." During the Bush years, a Republican President was responsible for (among other things) No Child Left Behind, a new prescription drugs entitlement, a sweeping program to fight AIDS in Africa, and new (though not particularly substantial) investments in faith-based anti-poverty programs. None of these had much to do with a self-interested economic libertarianism, and some of them, in fact, had nothing much to do with political self-interest either. I'm not endorsing all of these initiatives by any means, and indeed I think "compassionate conservatism" represents a dead end for would-be right-of-center reformers. I'm just suggesting that it's hard to see how this record squares with the Scheiber vision of what the GOP can and cannot do. (And yes, of course, Medicare Part D included giveaways for GOP-leaning interests, but that doesn't prove that Republican donors won't accept anything except tax cuts and government slashing; it just proves that if a Sam's Club agenda ever gets enacted, there will have to be some compromises along the way. And that's true of any agenda you care to name: It's just how politics works.)

I don't want to be Pollyannish on this point: I'm much less confident than, say, David Brooks that the vision Reihan and I have sketched out actually represents the future of the GOP. There are all sorts of roadblocks, institutional and otherwise, to sort of change we're interested in, and our ideas may not survive whatever contact with political reality they earn. But ultimately, a more working-class friendly GOP is no harder to imagine than was, say, the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton, which also required breaking with party orthodoxies and taking on entrenched interests. It may not happen, but it's a long way from being impossible.