Back in October, when the Republican presidential field gathered in Dearborn, Michigan to debate, the candidates barely bothered to talk about the everyday economic problems facing most families. But with unemployment up; with inflation last year at 4.1 percent, the highest level since 1990; with new home construction at the slowest pace since 1980; with foreclosures rising; with big Wall Street banks shedding tens of billions in losses and their failed CEOs, too; with the stock market down 10 percent in a month: The economy is suddenly an issue in the Republican presidential campaign.
And that has some conservative bloggers fretting over their keyboards. Can a Republican candidate feel the voters’ economic pain without betraying their free market faith?
In the wake of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s victory in Michigan, the right blogosphere was quick to see the threat of big-government economic pandering looming on the Republican horizon.
"National security pretty much dominated the debates leading up to primary season, but now, if Romney's success in Michigan prompts more and more candidate attention to economic issues," Byron York writes at National Review’s Corner, “the campaign will take on a new, decidedly post-war-on-terror feel. And if that happens, it will probably go in directions that few conservatives are happy with. When candidates start talking about easing voters' pain, there's no telling what they will promise.”
Mark Ambinder at The Atlantic draws a similar lesson from the early GOP contests. “Economic anxiety is prevalent and pervasive and growing, and Republicans who fail to understand this and respond creatively to it will do poorly,” he writes. “Remember, what professional conservatives –– i.e, those who spend their day's work being conservative, either as strategists or writers or lobbyists –– think a candidate should do is not what Republican voters seem to expect them to do.”
Ambinder’s liberal colleague and foil, Matthew Yglesias, disputes whether economic issues mattered in Romney’s triumph in his native state. Yglesias points to the Michigan exit polling data, which shows that Romney bested Sen. John McCain handily among voters who think the economy is strong or who earn more than $50,000; Romney trailed McCain among those who think the economy is poor, and earn less than $50,000. “The businessman candidate's main constituency seems to be among affluent business class types who aren't feeling an especially large amount of economic pain,” he writes.
But David Frum gives Romney credit for having addressed Michigan’s economic troubles “in a more sustained and detailed way” than either former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or McCain. “The weakness of the Huckabee/McCain message” might prove a major factor, both in the remaining primaries and in November.
And that annoys Ross Douthat. “In the context of the Michigan primary, the weakness of the Huckabee/McCain economic message seems to have been that it wasn't, well, liberal enough,” he notes.
Romney’s Michigan pitch –– “a huge infusion of government spending” to help the auto industry, as Daniel Larison snidely describes it –– was indeed “sustained and detailed,” Douthat writes: “A sustained and detailed infringement on free-market principle, and one that appeals to voters in places like Michigan precisely because it goes much further to the left than Mike Huckabee's substance-free talk about how the current period of economic growth isn't doing all that well by the working class, or John McCain's straight talk about how Michiganders can't expect the federal government to bring back the glory days of Chrysler and GM.
“The extent to which Romney is getting a free pass for his back-to-the-'70s, ‘D.C. will save the auto industry’ promises, while conservatives are still obsessing over how John McCain's 2000-2001 preference for a more progressive tax code makes him a ‘class warrior,’ seems more than a little ridiculous,” Douthat rails.
Leave it to a liberal to find the ray of hope for Republicans where conservative bloggers to see only contradiction and apostasy.
“Who is a real ‘free market Republican’ among the candidates?” asks Mark Schmitt at Tapped. (Cronyism alert: Schmitt is a colleague at the New America Foundation, though we’ve never met.) “And do they sound any different from the corporate Republicans? Not to my ears.”
The way out of the GOP’s bind would be for Republicans to drop the “always-cut-taxes ideology that passes for ‘free market,’” Schmitt argues. “One could imagine a robust social-contract Republicanism that marries Romney's Michigan language with some version of Huckabee's ‘Sam's Club Republicanism,’ that recognizes that families need more from government than gay-marriage bans.”
Where’s Nelson Rockefeller when you really need him?