One has to at least give grudging acceptance to the way populism has become resurgent in American politics. In 2006 Democrats used populism to rail again DC corruption and big business. In 08 Barack Obama used it to deadly effect once the financial crisis collapsed the Stock Market. In 2009 and 2010 the Tea Party’s brand of populism, a mix of social conservatism, anti-big business and anti-big government, swept the nation. In 2012, it may have handed the President his second term.
Historically both the GOP and Democratic Parties have used populism to win elections at all levels of government. In the 1990’s finding populist GOP candidates in the South finally handed them Congressional seats in the formerly Democratic region. In the Midwest and West Democrats broke the GOP stronghold on rural and suburban cities in the regions with a unique brand of populism. This brand of populism mixed pro-union views with a socially liberal/fiscally moderate message.
The President did not really need to use Midwestern Democratic populism in 2008. His campaign was based more on generalities and the unspoken “I am not a Republican.” Considering the economy tanked under a Republican President it is no shock he won the White House. But in 2012 the President had a liberal record to defend and a teetering economy. His campaign went all in early on defining his opponent, Mitt Romney, in Ohio. While the ads drove up the President’s negatives they likely kept Romney’s base unhappy with their nominee, depressing turnout.
What is so particularly interesting about 2012 is how the President used populism to secure a second term and what it offers the GOP in lessons. The key to the President’s populism in what was dubbed his “Midwestern firewall” was his bailout of the auto companies. The Midwest, particularly Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and to a lesser extent Iowa, all rely on the auto industry. When the President bailed out GM and Chrysler it made Americans across the country angry but it made many Midwesterners, especially the unions, feel like the President was looking out for them.
Another often overlooked factor in the President’s victory in the Midwest was the Stimulus Package. While it easily hurt Democrats in the 2010 elections as an issue it allowed core constituencies of the President, think teachers, auto-workers, social workers, to stay employed. While many states just delayed laying off these workers for two years it also had an impact in the private sector. The number of tax cuts and credits in the package were numerous which helped businesses. These two factors created a kind of image of the President as “A guy looking after the middle class.” Considering Romney’s personal wealth, unfairly or not, he could never really challenge the President on this front.
The GOP can use what the President did to craft an economic message of fiscal and social conservatism that appeals to both the Tea Party and suburban swing voters. This message should be tailored specifically to policy ideas that focus on growth for the middle class and reform. In Indiana, outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels, somebody one would not think of as populist, walks away from the office with a stunning achievement list. He successfully reformed the state’s pension plan, reformed education and biggest of all turned Indiana into a right to work state with private-union support. This kind of populism was also in effect in Ohio and Wisconsin. In Ohio it was smacked down by the unions but in Wisconsin it stuck through recalls of state senators and the GOP Governor.
History also offers the GOP lessons. In the late 1960’s Richard Nixon crafted his Southern Strategy. It entailed winning Southern states by appealing to white, conservative Democrats through economic libertarianism and social conservatism. Since that time the Deep South has been a lock for the GOP (minus a few states in 92 and 96). The GOP began making deep inroads in the South at the Congressional and legislative level starting in 94 railing against government overreach on gun control, abortion, and corruption. In Arkansas 2008 GOP Presidential primary nominee Mike Huckabee won two statewide races on this kind of populism.
Western populism has been used by both parties effectively. Anti-government sentiment runs deep in the region yet it is rapidly urbanizing. Again, GOP populism focusing on growth and individual liberty could unite voters in the West and perhaps bring the growing Hispanic population in the region into the GOP fold.
Populism has been shown throughout history to have proven a boon for both political parties. Come 2014 and 2016, populism could point the way forward for the GOP.