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Morning Jay: Mitt Romney and Modern Conservatism

6:00 AM, Oct 19, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Naturally, there has been plenty of talk this week about who won the debate. As I mentioned in my own recap, I thought that though Obama won more “points,” Romney did a better job advancing his argument for election.

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And that argument gets to the very core of modern economic conservatism – the idea that good pro-business policies generate economic growth, and thus are the best bet for all citizens of the United States over the long haul. Indeed, this concept reflects a long tradition in the Republican party, which has been inextricably linked with economic conservatism for over 100 years.

The Grand Old Party was initially a coalition opposed to the expansion of slavery, and thus contained a hodge-podge of old Whigs, Conscience Democrats, “Know-Nothings,” and a few others. When the party collectively abandoned Reconstruction after 1876, it was a coalition without much of an ideological identity, mostly made up of  groups united by old Civil War animosities.

That finally began to change in the 1890s. The economic collapse of that decade shoved the Democratic party into the Populist movement – the first politically salient leftist movement in the country – and induced a corresponding reaction from the GOP. In particular, Republicans opposed to the Populist-Democrats were forced to explain why they believed just what they did, and thus was born modern, economic conservatism, which ever since has been the heart and soul of the Republican party.

Or perhaps better yet it was ­re-born for the industrial era in the 1890s, as it certainly had its roots in the essentially pre-industrial philosophies of both the Federalist and Whig parties. Still, Republican nominee William McKinley gave it a modern makeover.

The Populist-Democratic argument that year called for a major redistribution of the national wealth, from the industrial centers in the Northeast to the impoverished farmers of the South and West. In opposition to that argument, McKinley and his allies pushed the idea that this was foolhardy because – over the long haul – the entire country would be better off due to the pro-business policies the Republican party was now called upon to defend (in particular, protective tariffs as well as the gold standard).

It was the first time in the industrial era that somebody articulated what we know today as modern, economic conservatism: pro-business policies benefit all citizens over time because they generate economic growth, and with it rising incomes, upward mobility, and ultimately social progress. During his tenure, McKinley called this idea “the full dinner pail;” the GOP’s pro-business stance made sure there was a chicken in every pot.

Historically, the full dinner pail has been challenged on multiple sides within the party itself. Moderates have often urged what Barry Goldwater once derided as a “Dime Store New Deal.” That is, the party’s core position should be to advocate a slower, more leisurely drift toward the statism of the progressive left, rather than promoting business and economic growth. Similarly, libertarian-style Republicans have advocated a government too lean to promote anything, including growth.

Even more dangerous to unadulterated economic conservatism is the inevitable temptation of cronyism. Being the party of business has often meant being the party of big (i.e. well-connected) business, and thus the  GOP has too often indulged in the kind of patronage payoffs like those that the urban machines often delivered.

Indeed, real economic conservatism has found precious few champions on a national level over the generations. Ronald Reagan, obviously, was one such advocate. So also was William McKinley. In his own laconic way, so also was Calvin Coolidge.

And, on Tuesday night, so too was Mitt Romney. It was almost as if he was channeling McKinley, Silent Cal, and the Gipper all at once.

First, a few hard numbers. How many times did Romney and Obama mention the key words on the minds of voters?

Liberals elated by Obama’s debate “victory” must have overlooked the fact that when it came to the kitchen table issues, Romney focused much more directly on them. And in fact, when it came to the number one issue of this campaign – jobs and unemployment – Romney mentioned them more than twice as often as Obama did.

This kind of emphasis on growth, prosperity, income, and jobs is reminiscent of the economic conservatism exemplified by McKinley-Coolidge-Reagan, but so also was the way Romney tied pro-business economic policies to mass prosperity.

Consider this, one of Romney’s best lines of the night:

[W]hy do I want to bring rates down and at the same time lower exemptions and deductions, particularly for people at the high end?  Because if you bring rates down, it makes it easier for small business to keep more of their capital and hire people. And for me, this is about jobs.  I want to get America's economy going again.  Fifty-four percent of America's workers work in businesses that are taxed as individuals.  So when you bring those rates down, those small businesses are able to keep more money and hire more people.

This is such a succinct summary of modern economic conservatism even Calvin Coolidge would be impressed. Helping businesses grow creates jobs, raises income, and spreads prosperity for all citizens.

Not only that, but Romney was careful not to fall into the trap of cronyism. He made an important distinction:

Our party has been focused on big business too long.  I came through small business.  I understand how hard it is to start a small business.  That's why everything I’ll do is designed to help small businesses grow and add jobs.  I want to keep their taxes down on small business.  I want regulators to see their job as encouraging small enterprise, not crushing it.

And the thing I find most troubling about Obamacare -- well, it’s a long list -- but one of the things I find most troubling is that when you go out and talk to small businesses and ask them what they think about it, they tell you it keeps them from hiring more people.

My priority is jobs.  I know how to make that happen.

In this day and age, big business is in Washington, D.C. looking for access. It is small businesses that stand to be helped the most by true economic conservatism, not the rent-seeking big guys, who have proven themselves to be well satisfied with Democratic or Republican governments.

Following the lead of the early modern Republicans, Romney even issued a stark warning to China:

The place where we’ve seen manufacturing go has been China.  China is now the largest manufacturer in the world -- used to be the United States of America.  A lot of good people have lost jobs…

Now, we're going to have to make sure that as we trade with other nations that they play by the rules, and China hasn't.  One of the reasons -- or one of the ways they don't play by the rules is artificially holding down the value of their currency.  Because if they put their currency down low, that means their prices on their goods are low, and that makes them advantageous in the marketplace.  We lose sales and manufacturers here in the U.S. making the same products can't compete.

The switch happened so long ago that most people alive today really have no personal memory of it, but economic conservatives used to favor tariffs strongly. That was back when American industries needed protection from more advanced competitors, especially in Great Britain. After the World Wars of the first half of the 20th century, America arose as the unparalleled world economic might, free trade advanced businesses more than protectionism, and hence conservatives changed their views.

But China’s systematic cheating – and the price American workers have paid for it – requires a response from economic conservatives. And Romney delivers it right here.

As the above chart illustrates, Romney connects this philosophy again and again to jobs. That is the core economic argument of conservative Republicanism, one that the left has never understood. It is not elitist; it is an inherently republican philosophy: the belief that smart pro-business policies generate growth, and therefore jobs, and therefore prosperity for Americans all across the country.

William McKinley was the first modern Republican to articulate this idea, and we saw Mitt Romney do it again this week – in a way that should make any conservative proud.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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