Allegedly it is even more difficult to identify the GOP establishment than it is to define a truuuuue conservative. Some say the establishment is made up of wealthy RINOs. Some say it’s Beltway elites. Some say it’s those who only really care about winning elections.
Try this on for size: the GOP establishment is made up of leading party figures who believe Republicans must run on a prosperity platform. For them, prosperity is the root idea and central theme of the GOP — the party’s brand promise. For them, the GOP won’t win unless voters look to Republicans as the ones who “deliver the goods,” as Herbert Marcuse put it.
Defining the establishment this way helps reveal the source of its peculiar passivity this election cycle. To date, the GOP establishment has taken a golden, unearned opportunity to defeat Barack Obama and simply blown it — because the politics of prosperity is so inadequate to the present political moment.
From this standpoint, the essential thing is not that the establishment is too corrupt or too insular, but that it is (yes) fundamentally mistaken about how the Republican Party can talk about America in a way that draws together a national coalition of conservative constituencies.
Establishment Republicans act as if prosperity is a first-order or foundational good — for the country and for the individual. Some people might really believe that. But, as great minds as varied as Hobbes, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Emerson, and Nietzsche understood, in a democratic age, prosperity is merely greatly desired — a preferred outcome rather than a foundational concept. In times like ours, the ideas that can capture the political imagination of the people are ones familiar from the American and French Revolutions — liberty, equality, and fraternity.
So, despite the unwillingness of the establishment to come out foursquare in his favor before Newt Gingrich could bring chaos to the race, Mitt Romney is transparently establishmentarian because he tells us that prosperity is our purpose, that prosperity is what makes America great, that only the Republican Party can offer it — and that he is its well-trained champion, best suited, for that reason, to take on Obama.
Alas, these campaign pitches — especially his framing of the president as a man who must go because he doesn’t really want maximum prosperity — are proving to be big disappointments.
All Romney’s opponents, by contrast, cast prosperity as but a consequence of one of the great democratic ideals. For Santorum, the source is Christian brotherhood. For Paul and Gingrich, prosperity is impossible without liberty from government dependence. And Obama’s own campaign relies on the democratic ideal of equality — especially in terms of our relationship with Washington.
But Romney’s prosperity pitch is hardly the worst example of the establishment’s failed and failing approach. Recall Tim Pawlenty’s unpersuasive contention that nothing that’s wrong with America can’t be fixed by marginal rate cuts and ambitious GDP goals? Remember Mitch Daniels’s attempt to portray red ink as the Red Menace of our time?