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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Hey, What Happened to the GOP’s ‘Economic Populism’?

The Republican presidential debate is old news already because of Trump’s mugshot and his latest legal mess. But if you have room for just one more take, try “‘Economic Populism’ Was Nowhere to Be Found at the GOP Debate” by Branko Marcetic, who observes at Jacobin:

Remember how the Republican Party is meant to be a “working-class party” that has rejected neoliberal economics? It’s a claim plastered all over the GOP’s branding since the 2020 elections. Well, apparently the Republican candidates themselves forgot, since the new working class–focused, economically populist mood we keep being told has taken over the GOP was nowhere to be found at last night’s Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee.

Republicans have defended the economic interests of wealthy elites over the working-class for well over a century. In Milwaukee, the eight Republican presidential candidates doubled down on their party’s tradition. As Marcetic notes,

America “cannot succeed when the Congress spends trillions and trillions of dollars,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis thundered. “We cannot sit by any longer and allow the kind of spending that’s going on in Washington,” said former New Jersey governor and Donald Trump whipping boy Chris Christie, shortly after boasting about cutting taxes and debt as governor. Tea Party darling and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley attacked Republicans and the Donald Trump administration in particular as wild spendthrifts that “added $8 trillion to our debt,” even at one point comparing Democrats favorably to the GOP in terms of keeping a lid on earmarks. “I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House,” she concluded.

“I was the first person in this race to say we’ve got to deal with the long-term national debt issues,” said Mike Pence as if such a promise were novel, pledging to “restore fiscal responsibility” and complaining that “you’ve got people on this stage who won’t even talk about issues like Social Security and Medicare,” a not-so-subtle nod to the former vice president’s pledge to cut those entitlement programs. This was in response to a question that started out mentioning the rising cost of groceries, by the way.

Marcetic adds, “Trump’s gargantuan 2017 tax cut for the rich featured prominently in the debate, but not as a focus of attack for letting the richest of the rich pay lower rates than working-class Americans and eventually hiking rates for lower- and middle-income earners. Instead, candidates fell over each other to attach themselves to that legislative love letter to plutocrats (whose December 22, 2017 signing, incidentally, coincided with maybe the worst period for Trump’s approval rating), as when South Carolina senator Tim Scott took credit for the law — and deservedly so — and Pence brought it up in response to, of all things, a question about crime in US cities.”

Also, notes Marcetic, “Haley complained that Trump had “left us with ninety million people on Medicaid” and “forty-two million people on food stamps” by signing the CARES Act in March 2020. Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson bragged about slashing his state’s government employee rolls by 14 percent, before affirming that as president, “we need someone who can actually constrain the growth of federal government, that can actually reduce the size — and I’ve pledged to reduce by 10 percent our federal, nondefense workforce.”

Summing up, Marcetic writes, “So let’s go over what the Republican candidates were pledging to do as president in 2023: slash spending, gut entitlements, shrink government, bust unions, and cut taxes for the rich — all while maintaining current funding for the cartoonishly large US military.”

It is no surprise that the Republicans deployed their usual strategy of emphasizing culture war distractions to overshadow their reactionary economic policies. Yes, we know, Jacobin is a hard left rag. But Marcetic hits the most significant takeaway squarely.

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