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Republican Party taps new zeal


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POSTED: Tuesday, September 22, 2009

WASHINGTON » Hello, fiery populism. Goodbye, fire and brimstone.

One by one, before an annual gathering Friday of the religious right and other “;values voters,”; conservative leaders blistered President Barack Obama's health care plan as socialism, warned of expanded government and derided bailouts of private industry as grossly unfair to taxpayers.

“;Our trust remains in God, not government,”; said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who criticized an “;ongoing effort of this administration and the liberal majority in Congress to take over our health care.”;

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., predicted “;an avalanche of socialism”; under Democrats and claimed they were “;putting runaway federal spending on steroids.”;

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared, “;We cannot let a crippling debt or an ever-expanding government stifle the American dream.”;

Republicans, and particularly the GOP's right, are harnessing anger by using age-old us-vs.-them appeals and embracing issues like the economy, health care and big government to counter Obama in hopes of finding a winning strategy after consecutive losses in national elections.

By doing so, the party may have found a broader context within which it can fit cultural, religious and social topics that keep hard-core GOP voters happy but sometimes turn off moderates and independents.

During George W. Bush's tenure, Republicans heavily promoted issues such as those dealing with God, gays and guns, and they got traction with religious conservatives. Speakers at gatherings like the Values Voters Summit, which got under way Friday, spent much of their time denouncing abortion, same-sex marriage and firearm restrictions.

But the narrow strategy had its limits because most Americans aren't single-issue voters.

These days, such issues aren't emphasized so much, though conservatives use the health care debate to fight abortion and government-funded counseling in end-of-life decisions.

Enter the wider political opportunity created by a country that's going through an acrimonious period in which people's intense anger is motivated, perhaps, by fear of the economic recession, of the country's uncertain future, of a new president who doesn't look like others before him.

Reflecting the despair, 57 percent in a recent Associated Press-GfK poll said the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Despite evidence the recession is abating, many people aren't sensing the economy turning around because job losses continue. Skeptical of both the public and private sectors, they are infuriated by government bailouts of the automotive, insurance and banking industries. At a time of huge budget deficits, they also have sticker shock over the president's pursuit of health care and energy overhauls.

And, even though the nation elected Obama, many people still aren't comfortable with the president who is biracial, who has a foreign-sounding name and who is trying to bring sweeping change to a country that instinctively cringes from it.

The anger has reached a boiling point. Consider Rep. Joe Wilson's shout of “;You lie!”; as the president addressed Congress, the tens of thousands who marched on Washington to protest Obama policies and the hostile questioning of lawmakers during health care events.

It's under such conditions that populist arguments tend to resonate because they tug at a universal belief among Americans that government should be working for the people in a democracy.

Since the 1800s, populism has been a powerful political weapon—particularly for out-of-power movements—during periods when the public, correctly or not, believes the elites are taking away that ideal.

“;There's always a suspicion of the concentration of power out there, and the question is who can mobilize that fear best politically,”; said Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, who wrote “;The Populist Persuasion: An American History.”;

Democrats generally, and the left in particular, did it in 2006 and 2008, embracing the public's anger over Bush's policies in Iraq, his handling of Hurricane Katrina and the economic collapse. These days, Republicans, and the right specifically, are wielding the power of populist arguments.

“;They work pretty well now,”; Kazin said. “;There's a kind of anger out there, based on a sense of ideal betrayal.”;

Populism can broaden the GOP's appeal because it cuts across all ideologies; most Americans view themselves simply as people who want a responsive government.

Also, issues that directly effect people's everyday lives, like the economy and health care, seemingly give the GOP an even wider net. Bread-and-butter subjects have risen in importance while cultural issues aren't resonating as loudly in part because of what appears greater acceptance among Americans and an unwillingness by Obama to incite fights on such matters.

Republicans face a delicate dance with the strategy ahead of next fall's midterm congressional elections.

They want to tap into anger but don't want to be seen as extremists inciting it. That may be why many mainstream Republican leaders have distanced themselves from far-right comparisons of Obama and Hitler, and the widely debunked allegations that Obama wasn't born in Hawaii and, thus, his presidency is illegitimate.

Populist arguments also can go too far, leading to cynicism and a lack of political involvement, meaning problems then don't get solved. Democrats have accused Republicans of caring more about defeating Obama than actually serving the people.

And ultimately, there's no certainty that this fickle public will continue to be angry and focused on broad-based issues. Republicans, particularly conservatives, are willing to take that chance.