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?
Consider above all — and it is painful to say this of such an impressive Republican — Paul Ryan’s unfortunate claim that Americans enjoy some strange moral novelty called a “right to rise.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush gave the alien term a bear-hug embrace, holding it up as “the core concept of economic freedom.” To be sure, a system that prevents current elites ever from failing prevents future elites ever from reaching prominence. But economic freedom demands precious few rights. It doesn’t even demand a right to market entry, the precondition of competition.
Indeed, economic freedom, as the very grammar of the English language shows, is not a primary good but a subset of one. Economic freedom is simply the presence of liberty in economics, and liberty counsels that upward mobility is not to be found among the inalienable appurtenances of man.
The establishment persists in its unconservative formulations out of the dual fear that American prosperity will collapse without proper government supervision and that American voters will abandon the GOP unless persuaded that Republicans will devote the practice of politics to raising their standard of living.
And what are the fruits of these labors? A Republican base that will reward any candidate who delivers a different message, no matter how personally ill-suited to the task. A liberal media more certain than ever that today’s GOP is more conservative than ever. And an election-year narrative that allows Democrats to frame the Republican Party as defined by the love of wealth.
If victory in 2012 is to come, the formula for victory is clear. Republicans must begin from the premise of liberty and run against Barack Obama’s habitual, instinctive aggrandizement of the government, the executive, the crony class, and himself. Rather than portraying the president as a man who wants to make America much weaker, Republicans should depict him as a man who wants to make the uncontested rule of his kind of elites much stronger. Rather than promising greater prosperity than government can guarantee, Republicans are obliged to emphasize the damage done to America when freedom is traded away for any degree of prosperity.
At this moment in the race, there is only one candidate who seems capable of assembling a full-spectrum Republican coalition around these themes. His name is Newt Gingrich.
And if that bothers you, the GOP establishment should bother you too.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.