The cultural and economic problems America confronts are structural. The lifelong biological family is unable to reliably function as a source of social order. The size and scope of the criminal justice system is unsustainable and corrosive. The magnitude of privately held debt spins nightmare scenarios in the heads of policymakers already hesitant to undo a system of governance dedicated above all to artificially maintaining for Americans of every class a lifestyle many of them could not accomplish on their own.
That may feel compassionate — or even merely prudent — but on anything more than the most shortsighted of timelines, it is neither. The endemic subsidization on which our virtual prosperity depends is incompatible with any fair view of Americans as a free people. And against that most serious charge, Pawlentyism — no matter how conservative in its convictions, commitments, and attitudes — has no answer.
Does any Republican approach? For now, it’s difficult to answer yes. But the contours of a satisfactory alternative to establishment drift are easy to recognize.
In foreign policy, end our indefinite military garrisons, increase our ability to poke hard with a sharp stick at key moments and help our cornerstone allies in Europe and Asia better assert a constant regional presence.
On criminal justice, legalize soft drugs, clean up the appeals and capital punishment process, overhaul our corrupt (and corrupting) prison system, and reform and reintegrate felons.
On border issues, permit brief stays for true migrant workers, and demand an immediate choice between citizenship and deportation for resident illegal immigrants without criminal records.
On social issues, embrace the Tenth Amendment, and work to defeat and reverse judges who don’t just legislate from the bench but philosophize.
And on the defining issue of our time — subsidy and entitlement spending writ large — begin the urgent task of painstakingly unraveling the cocoon of incentives, payoffs, behavioral modifications, and socioeconomic engineering that has forced well-off, middle-class, working-class, and poor Americans to choose between greater prosperity and greater independence.
There’s no reason a Republican candidate can’t embrace these or similar positions. They amount to a post-establishmentarian vision of governance that steps outside the box created by misleading categories like “extreme” on the one hand and “centrist” on the other. And they sharply rebuke the sitting president.
Tim Pawlenty didn’t flop because Iowans are crackpots or Tea Partiers are wingnuts. It’s not extremism along the traditional political spectrum that grassroots Republicans (and independents and others) want. It’s an extreme departure from that spectrum, which has become — to say nothing of the parlous state of the left — a license and excuse for a great drift into inadequacy by conventional fusionism on the right.
If the candidates counted as the winners in the wake of Pawlenty’s departure don’t grasp that fact, they might have beaten him, but they’ll have joined him, too.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.