A few right-leaning writers have offered “libertarian populism” as the cure for what ails the Republican Party. They’ve got the right diagnosis: The party’s chief political problem is the perception, all too often justified, that it promotes the economic interests of the rich and big businesses rather than of most people.
In recognizing this truth, the libertarian populists are much more clear-headed than the Republican Party’s elites, who would generally prefer to adjust the party’s position on immigration and social issues and leave its economic agenda as is.
The defect of libertarian populism, however, is that it would do more to put Republicans on record against the collusion of big government and big business than in favor of policies that would help most people. And while both of these things are politically important, the latter is more so.
As I argued a few days ago, libertarian-populist manifestos tend to emphasize policies that are unpopular (or would be on first contact with Democratic arguments) or do not move many voters. Libertarian-populist writer Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, naturally, resists this conclusion. He claims that skilled politicians can indeed make vote-winners out of such issues as the abolition of the Export-Import Bank.
Let’s ask Barack Obama, who seems pretty good at winning elections.
Obama, for instance, thought it was a winning tactic to rail against “tax breaks for corporate jets.” He did so consistently on the campaign trail. He did so in the debates. He makes the argument even after winning reelection.
Carney’s language here reveals the basic mistake: He is using a successful Obama tactic as the template for an entire strategy. Obama did not win the election over tax breaks for corporate jets, and the issue was vastly less important for his re-election than saving Detroit, subsidizing student loans and other issues on which he could position himself as the benefactor of the middle class. The tax-break issue, as contrived as it was, served to illustrate a political identity that Obama and his party had already established.
The abolition of corporate welfare, on the other hand, is one of the key planks in the libertarian-populist platform. Libertarian populism is supposed to do more than win a media cycle or two for the Republicans by wrong-footing the Democrats, and more even than gain Republicans a few votes on the margin. As Carney puts it, it’s supposed to make “believers in economic liberty . . . begin to be seen as the party of the regular guy.”
The deep payroll-tax cuts Carney recommends might go some ways toward doing that, as might the free-market health-care reform he mentions. But that would require knowing the answers to questions that turn in part on the details of those policies. Will voters accept the trade-off in terms of other taxes, spending and deficits? Can they be persuaded not to fear that a payroll tax cut won’t endanger Social Security and Medicare? Will the health-care reform strike most people as something likely to make coverage more affordable?
It is certainly not Carney’s job to answer those questions in one op-ed or even two. The point is that the effort to answer them concentrates the mind on what’s politically important: whether these policies can be plausibly said to improve people’s lives, not whether they can be said to strike a blow against crony capitalism. Libertarian populism sounds good, but we should not mistake a few bars for a whole song sheet.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review. Follow him on Twitter.)