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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.


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.

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