The battle to define the post-Bush GOP

Free-market capitalism and foreign policy take centre stage in the battle for the Republican nomination

There are a few interesting things going on in the Republican presidential campaign beyond the immediate battle for who will be emerge from South Carolina as the strongest “Not Romney.”

Two big conversations have emerged from this campaign season that go beyond the question of “Who can beat Obama in November?”

The first is the relationship between Republicans and free-market capitalism, high finance, and the growing inequality gap in the U.S. Most recently, this issue has exploded in the form of Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record while he ran Bain Capital, a private equity firm. Gingrich, quickly joined by Rick Perry, attacked Romney for buying up failing enterprises, saddled them with large debt used in part to pay Bain large management fees, and then downsized them or let them fail, resulting in large job losses. This is the theme of the film “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” that Gingrich’s supporters are promoting around South Carolina.

Here’s Gingrich on Thursday:

It’s legitimate to ask the question — and this is the whole Wall Street problem — how come the big boys made a lot of money and [others] went broke? And that’s not an attack on capitalism. That’s not an issue about the whole capitalist system. That is a question about a very particular style of activity involving a very particular person.

While it may seem like a personal payback by Gingrich against Romney, who ran devastatingly negative ads against Gingrich that cut short his rise in the polls ahead of the Iowa vote, the line of attack against Romney taps into a deeper vain. After all, the Tea Party movement arose in large part as a backlash to the Wall Street bailout initiated under George W. Bush, and had a mainstream v. Wall Street sentiment not unlike the 99 percent movement. So it’s not surprising that the rivals to Romney have chosen to go there.

But by doing so they have set off a fiery reaction from people who worry the party’s very soul is at stake:

Here’s conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh:

I just cannot believe that we have Santorum and Newt and Perry out attacking capitalism, out attacking Romney. What is this? Everybody is asking, “What is going on?” Republican presidential candidates attacking business? It’s senseless.

Here’s former NYC mayor and former GOP presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani:

What the hell are you doing, Newt? I expect this from Saul Alinsky. This is what Saul Alinsky taught Barack Obama, and what you’re saying is part of the reason we’re in so much trouble right now.

But they’ve also set off an internal debate. Here’s Bill Kristol at the conservative Weekly Standard, for example:

Post 2008, capitalism needs its strong defenders—but its defenders need also to be its constructive critics. The Tea Party was right. What’s needed is a critique of Big Government above all, but also of Big Business and Big Finance and Big Labor (and Big Education and Big Media and all the rest)—and especially a critique of all those occasions when one or more of these institutions conspire against the common good. What’s needed is a willingness to put Main Street (at least slightly) ahead of Wall Street, and a reform agenda for capitalism that strengthens it, alongside an even more dramatic reform agenda for government that limits it.

And here is conservative activist and fundraiser, Richard Viguerie, defending Gingrich:

Far from being anti-capitalist, Mitt Romney’s opponents are asking one of the fundamental questions that brought forth the tea party rebellion:  Do we have free markets and moral hazard or do we have crony capitalism where favored interests have the advantage over the little guy?

It’s a conversation that won’t be over soon.

The second interesting conversation that has been launched is over foreign policy. Ron Paul’s surprisingly strong finishes suggest there is a bigger audience for his ideas than there were when he ran for president four years ago. Sure, some primary voters who voted for Ron Paul and his “let’s close foreign bases” and “let’s not be the world’s policeman” positions, were not card-carrying Republicans but former Obama voters or independent voters who joined in the primaries. Nonetheless, there has long been an isolationist strain among some Republicans which was tamped down after 9/11 and while George W. Bush was president. (Indeed, it was Bush himself who originally ran against Clinton’s “nation-building.”)

More hawkish Republicans are starting to worry. Here was John Bolton, Bush’s former UN ambassador, who recently endorsed Romney:

When I see — I have to be candid — a candidate like Ron Paul whose foreign policy is, if anything, worse than the Obama administration, apparently leading in Iowa according to some polls, it just gives me great concern.

Stephen Walt argues in Foreign Policy magazine that Paul may be planting a seed:

Paul has done surprisingly well during this primary season, and his views clearly resonate with a sizeable core of young and fairly well-educated voters. Is it possible that Paul’s brand of foreign policy restraint just needs a better champion, one who is both more broadly appealing but also not saddled by so much poisonous baggage? In short, just as Ronald Reagan eventually built on the Goldwater movement and made its core principles appealing to many Americans, might Ron Paul’s views on foreign policy be awaiting the arrival of a candidate (in 2016, or maybe 2020) who can put them in a more attractive package?

The campaign of 2012 could be about more than choosing a candidate. It’s launching some internal conversation that will help shape the Republican Party for the post-Bush era.


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