While reading Jeff Zeleny’s account of Tim Pawlenty’s efforts to position himself as the generic orthodox Republican I couldn’t help but be reminded of the article that put Pawlenty on my radar screen. That, of course, was the 2005 joint from Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat that jumped off Pawlenty’s vacuous injunction that Republicans should be “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club” to argue for a conservatism focused on working class economic concerns:
The third possibility–and the best, both for the party and the country as a whole–would be to take the “big-government conservatism” vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability. This wouldn’t mean an abandonment of small-government objectives, but it would mean recognizing that these objectives–individual initiative, social mobility, economic freedom–seem to be slipping away from many less-well-off Americans, and that serving the interests of these voters means talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can’t have an “ownership society” in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own. It would mean matching the culture war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family–the institution best capable of providing cultural stability and economic security–at the heart of the GOP agenda.
The piece even offers a shout out to Mitt Romney’s health care thinking as an important step in the right direction.
At any rate, I think it’s telling that not only has Pawlenty failed to live up to this aspiration of innovative thinking, but the general trend in conservative politics has been to simply ratchet up the Bush/Rove incoherence. Instead of cutting taxes without offsetting tax cuts, the new thing to do is to insist very loudly that spending must be cut immediately while simultaneously positioning yourself as the one true defender of Medicare. It’s a very different political style and mood from what prevailed five years ago, but it reflects the exact same tension Ross and Reihan were writing about then. There’s a disjuncture between the funding base of a movement focused on rich people’s tax rates and the voting base of a party relying on older working class white people for the bulk of the votes.