Postmodern Conservative

Populist Conservative Voters Are Not the Problem

When looking at Ramesh Ponnuru’s recent disagreements with Amity Shlaes, Matthew Denhart, and Bobby Jindal, we should remember something about populist conservatives who are suspicious of the Republican establishment: They are a pretty responsible bunch when it comes to casting their presidential ballots.

It doesn’t always get reported that way. There is too much generalizing from crazy poll results during the silly season (Donald Trump among the leaders) and from the behavior of the most irritable talk radio callers.

One thing to keep in mind is that most populist conservatives are normal people. They have principles, but are not political obsessives and they don’t have a very clear idea of the dimensions of the federal budget. Like most normal people, they don’t go into the early stages of a campaign with a very clear idea of how the policies of a given candidate will work (not least because candidates are often vague and/or misleading).

Populist conservatives initially respond to a proposed policy based on how that policy is explained in relation to (some of) their values. One of the best examples is Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. Cain relentlessly sold his plan in terms of transparency, growth, simplicity, and fairness. It sounded good.

But populist Republicans were also realistic. When it became clear that one of Cain’s 9s was a federal sales tax and another of the 9s was a value-added tax, support for Cain’s plan waned. Cain knew that all of his talk about transparency and growth was not going to work because people were not going to vote themselves a middle-class tax increase. When his primary opponents hammered him on the combination of the sales tax and the value-added tax, Cain crawled into the (rhetorical) fetal position and muttered about reading the website analysis of his plan.

Shlaes and Denhart argue that the political conversation should start with “How low can you get that top marginal rate?” But as Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, several of the 2012 cycle candidates proposed flat taxes that would have sharply reduced the top marginal rate and those plans got little interest from Republican primary voters. In fact, conservative populists settled on Rick Santorum as the alternative to Romney. While some of Santorum’s tax ideas were half-baked, he was also the Republican candidate most critical of the idea that the GOP should prioritize cutting taxes on the highest earners. It turned out that not even the most conservative of the Republican presidential primary voters were all that focused on making the biggest possible cut the top marginal tax rate.

James Pethokoukis sometimes writes about the dangers of “fantasy” tax plans that would require middle-class tax increases or else explode the deficit in order to cut taxes on high-earners. The political costs of such fantasies are real, but they are mostly opportunity costs. Shooting them down takes time away from discussion of realistic plans. The Republican nominating electorate is large enough that it is not going to raise taxes on itself in order to cut taxes on its wealthiest members. As the distributional impact of the tax plans becomes obvious, the bulk of populist conservative voters will walk away.

This is the point where one hears the objection that , even if a tax plan reduces revenue, so what? We should just cut government spending to get back to budget neutrality. You could start with the revenue neutral Ryan budget plan that sharply cut federal spending and still did not balance the budget for twenty years, and figure out how much more you want to cut spending and if the American electorate will put up with such cuts.

This gets back to the basic prudence of populist conservatives. They know, at various levels of detail, that a great deal of federal money is wasted. They (rightly) wish that Medicare and Social Security had been structured differently. But, as with taxes, they are realistic given the choices we face. They want a smaller and more effective government relative to what the Democrats want, and they also want an effective military and old age programs that will be sustainable for their parents and (eventually) themselves. If you aren’t listening carefully, populist conservatives can sound like burn-it-all-down radicals when they are really operational reformers.

Rick Perry was a victim of careless listening. Referring to Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” was fine when he was a governor, but he found that Republican primary voters didn’t like hearing that talk from a presidential candidate. Perry had to backtrack and assure Republican voters that he and Social Security were the best of friends. That doesn’t mean that Republican primary voters were against reform of old age entitlements. The 2012 cycle Republican primary electorate recoiled from Newt Gingrich when he called Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal “right-wing social engineering.” They didn’t want someone who sounded like he wanted to destroy those programs.

MSNBC hosts tend to treat anti-establishment conservatives like ignorant, belligerent, ideological drunks so as to condemn them. Some Republican politicians treat anti-establishment conservatives as ignorant, belligerent, ideological drunks so as to pander to them. Populist conservatives are actually wiser than is assumed by either their open enemies or their cynical alleged friends. The Republican party doesn’t need better voters. It needs braver, more honest, and more respectful candidates.      

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