Election 2012: Populism is Coming, but What Kind?

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 1:41 AM

If you haven’t been paying attention to the political process lately, I don’t blame you. It is still much too early, and there is little to calm the urge to call down a pox on all houses, no matter where you reside.

The center is holding on the Democratic side in the person of the president, at least for now. Nevertheless, it is axiomatic that the selection process among the challengers holds the intrigue and I have no cause to doubt it.

Mitt Romney somehow inherited the mantle of frontrunner from the beginning, and this is as mysterious to me as the perfection of his hair. Were he a compelling spokesman for any sort of political ideology, his religion might be dealt with a la Kennedy in 1960. But considering his love-hate relationship with consistency, it constitutes a second strike in a game where you don’t often get three.

If the process concludes next year as it did roughly three years ago, Romney will be the nominee. The compromise nobody likes gets selected to defeat a foe that is far more feared. One compelling aspect of this is the self-discovery among the Republicans prompted by the loss in 2008. “Socialist” didn’t scare the masses into McCain’s column, but “crony capitalist” might bring the majority to the GOP. This insight, while obvious to the hyper-intellectual and the doctrinaire, was expertly introduced into the public awareness by Sarah Palin.

You might say that the left fears big business more than big government, and the right the reverse. But the Tea Party uprising is encapsulated in but one frustration: unresponsiveness. It may have been in significant danger of co-option by the GOP in 2010 after their big win that year, but it has lessened.

In one way, the average liberal today shares something with the capitalist radical: they both join in the deserved mocking that our economic apparatus inspires. It is in large measure a closed system that produces unjust results. Where the republic teeters on the knife’s edge is the place where the system becomes too closed to change, or the number of people agitating for the change is smaller than those who are benefitting from the status quo. Where movements get dangerous is when a great number believe that the instruments of representative government are not sufficient to address their concerns. Sadly, we are getting closer to this reality.

But there is a huge opportunity for a candidate to articulate in policy the frustrations of the whole electorate: They’re not listening to us. To me. Everything is too big: the government, business, whatever. And I’m just carried along by it.

Can Romney really answer this concern for the populace?

It is actually Ron Paul who is the closest to that sentiment. But politics is an art, and practitioners who can’t offer a holistic vision don’t win. There is enough of his program that sounds quirky and dangerous to prevent him from winning. Besides that, he sounds like a college professor with ADHD and an anger problem. It won’t be enough to talk about limited government, even though that is the first step. People need to know that they are not pawns, whether of their government or of the money-making cartels who aim to control their lives.

Newt Gingrich might be the guy that can offer a holistic vision. He’s been in the shadows long enough not to be the lightning-rod he once was. Though he mixes radical ideas with a slight tendency to suck up to the intelligentsia, he wasn’t exiled for conservative heresy. He had a rocky personal life in a highly visible position, and an inclination to imitate Joe Cannon once he was there. And we love to forgive, at least when you win. And Gingrich isn’t Romney or Obama.

Speaking of whom, the president has the other compelling storyline. Not Obama now, mind you, but Obama the candidate three or four years ago. What was it that he did to win? It was a Reverse Nixon. He took the anti-war sentiment, purged it of its anti-Americanism, offered polite redistributionist NPR liberalism (“I’ll take money from the rich, but not from us”) and tried not to sound like a lunatic. Though he was birthed in the very militaristic apparatus he scorned, it worked. He got a little luck in an opponent his own supporters didn’t like — McCain was like his hero Goldwater, except without the principles — and the financial crisis.

The ideal example to follow would have been Clinton, but as we have said, Obama was too ideologically blinded to have understood the true nature of his coalition. And that’s a pity, because I meant what I wrote about him in these pages.

Unless there is a huge change, one of these Republican men will be president on January 20, 2013. I don’t think the president has the loyalty or the benefit of the doubt to prevail in a tight race.

Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor to Open for Business.