Republicans hearing populist echo

By Matt Barnum

In the 1964 presidential election, the Republican Party offered up, as conservative author Phyllis Schlafly put it, a choice, not an echo. This “choice,” Barry Goldwater, was roundly defeated—America chose Lyndon Johnson instead—but in defeat Goldwater effected a conservative change in the Republican Party.

In 2008, Republicans are at a similar crossroads: They must once again decide between a choice and an echo. The echo is of George Bush’s populist-conservatism, and the choice is a return to Goldwater’s libertarian-conservatism.

In the Republican Party, populism—that is, social conservatism and fiscal liberalism, or in this case, fiscal moderation—is most skillfully articulated and defended by Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter. In Gerson’s new book, Heroic Conservatism—a phrase which is to compassionate conservatism what progressivism is to liberalism—he argues for “conservative” means (use of the market by government) to achieve traditionally liberal ends (such as alleviation of poverty and fighting global AIDS). The ideology of Gerson and Bush is strongly socially conservative, moderate on fiscal issues, and idealistically interventional in foreign policy.

On the other side of the Republican coin is Ron Paul, the de facto standard-bearer of libertarian-conservatism. Paul, who previously ran for president as a Libertarian (big L), argues for massive cuts in the federal government and withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but is only slightly to the left of mainstream Republicans on social issues. Paul’s version of conservatism necessitates a major shift to the right fiscally and a return to traditionally conservative and somewhat isolationist foreign policy, but only a minor move to the left socially.

Among the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, Gerson’s and Bush’s populism is embodied to some degree by almost all of the leading candidates, while Paul is the lone libertarian voice. Mitt Romney, who talks a good game on fiscal conservatism, is an echo if there ever was one, and will likely continue Bush’s status quo of heavy government spending. Ditto for Fred Thompson. Former “maverick” turned calculating politician, John McCain is a bit harder to peg, but his policy positions—opposition to abortion, vigorous support of campaign finance reform, and an inconsistent fiscal record—show a strong populist streak. Rudy Giuliani perhaps best avoids the two sides: His support of abortion rights, gun control, affirmative action, and Wilsonian foreign policy indicates that he’s not a populist, libertarian, or conservative Republican, but simply a liberal one. And finally, all of them are basically supportive of the Iraq war. Indeed, if it was neo-conservatism that brought us to Iraq, it will be populist-conservatism that keeps us there.

But although all these candidates are pretty good populists, none of them is a perfect one: Romney and Thompson might be too conservative fiscally, McCain is too unpredictable, and Giuliani is too liberal on social issues. The best representative, then, of Republican-populism is Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. The plainspoken Huckabee, a committed social conservative, has compiled a fiscally liberal record as governor, hedges his bets on many fiscal issues—he believes in “free trade, but it has to be fair trade”—and echoes some of Gerson’s rhetoric on achieving liberal ends via conservative means.

In any case, it seems to be working: Huckabee has moved into second place in most polls of Iowa voters. It’s increasingly accurate to place him in the same tier as Romney, Giuliani, McCain, and Thompson.

The same cannot be said for Ron Paul. Paul’s best hope lies in New Hampshire—widely considered one of the most libertarian states in the union—but he is currently polling at less than five percent in the Granite State.

Considering Huckabee’s surprising ascent, Paul’s inability to gain traction, and the relatively populist nature of all the frontrunners, are Republicans destined to nominate an echo of Bush? I would say yes, but that doesn’t mean that the echo will be ineffective. Bush’s failure, at least in the eyes of the public, didn’t stem from his populism. Perhaps if the next populist standard-bearer were more articulate and his foreign policy advisors more able, Republican-populism could be a great political success.

This success, however, would ultimately mean an abandonment of conservatism. Gerson’s description of conservatism as “heroic” is telling. His view of a “heroic” government—one that is the solution to society’s ills—is not what conservatism is, but rather exactly what it isn’t.

So the question remains: Are Republicans willing to give up true conservatism for short-term political success? And perhaps more importantly: Do they have a choice?

Matt Barnum is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and psychology. His column appears every other Friday.