GOP Candidates Sparred Over Wealth, War and Washington Itself

Is the Republican Party becoming overtaken by Tea-Party conservative economic populism?

After the Republicans’ presidential-nomination debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday, the focus of the pundits was almost exclusively on who won and who lost, who performed well and who didn’t, who met expectations and who fell below. That’s understandable. After all, as Mark Twain said, it’s difference of opinion that makes horse races. And I’m not inclined to ignore that aspect of the event; hence, more on that below.

But perhaps a more significant exploration would focus on what the debate tells us about the Republican Party. It tells us that the GOP has coalesced behind a strong antipathy toward what has become known as crony capitalism.

This is no small matter. The country is in crisis, as Senator Ted Cruz said in his closing remarks, and each party must establish a credible narrative outlining the nature of the crisis and an approach to attacking it. For the Democrats, the narrative is clear: The problem is an unequal distribution of money and power. The enemy is rich people. The answer is European-style democratic socialism, with the managerial elite taking on more and more power and pushing more and more programs designed to redistribute wealth and societal prerogative.

Slow economic growth and a shrinking economic pie breed such thinking among liberal-minded people, and so it’s not surprising that there isn’t much of a gap between Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, and Hillary Clinton, who seems to have totally discarded her husband’s centrist governing philosophy.

For Republicans, the narrative comes into focus through the attack on crony capitalism. It suggests that this is not a status quo party, not particularly sympathetic to the country-club ethos that once maintained such a hold on the GOP establishment. The Tea Party movement that emerged in 2010 didn’t take over the party, as some feared, but the party clearly has absorbed significant elements of the Tea Party outlook, including the feeling that big government and big business and big finance and big labor are all mired together in a sump of mutual back-scratching and corruption. The word “corruption’’ was tossed around with abandon during the debate.

This suggests the GOP is becoming a party of conservative populism, dedicated to protecting ordinary Americans and the middle class from the elites that dominate much of government, the prestigious media, high finance in New York, academia and the think-tank and NGO world. A significant proportion of what was said in the debate on domestic matters had a ring of Andrew Jackson railing against the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson was the country’s original conservative populist, bent on smashing cozy public-private arrangements whereby government officials benefited through the distribution of favors, emoluments, government contracts and targeted public works projects “to make navigable [favored citizens’] neighboring creek or river, bring commerce to their doors, and increase the value of their property,’’ as Jackson once put it.

Carly Fiorina talked about the need to “take our government back’’ from the elites who now dominate it. She also attacked the Dodd-Frank legislation to regulate banks and securities as “the classic of crony capitalism.’’ Paul railed against the Federal Reserve, saying its low-interest-rate policies have succored the big banks while devastating people of modest means living on fixed incomes. Ted Cruz blasted sugar subsidies and talked about the rich getting in bed with big government in Washington. It seemed that the people who hit these themes most strongly were the ones leading in the polls.

It will be interesting to see what the party does with these themes as the campaign unfolds. But it’s difficult to conceive of primary and caucus voters turning against them or ignoring them. In times of crisis, voters don’t generally opt for the status quo.

In the meantime, the candidates will continue to gnaw at other issues that generate sparks of disagreement. One is immigration, thrust into the nomination battle primarily by Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along America’s southern border and expel some eleven million illegal immigrants now in the United States. Almost no one sees any credibility in Trump’s vow to expel so many U.S. residents. John Kasich dismissed the idea as a “silly argument, not an adult argument.’’ And Jeb Bush said such an effort would “tear communities apart.’’ He added that “they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign,” because such an incendiary proposal would blight the GOP.

But Cruz said Democrats are laughing because they know that if the Republicans join Democrats as a party of amnesty, the GOP base would erode and the party would lose.

It isn’t easy to sort this out, but one has to ask whether there isn’t an underlying sentiment within the party that likes the symbolism of Trump’s stark rhetoric on the issue—even though they know it isn’t realistic. Otherwise, how does one explain the man’s continued buoyancy in the polls?

The other major area of disagreement was on foreign policy and defense spending. Rand Paul blasted Marco Rubio’s call for massive ongoing defense spending, saying the Florida senator’s spending program, as well as his call for doubling the family tax credit, called into question whether he is in fact a conservative. Rubio shot back, “I know that Rand is a committed isolationist.’’