< When Republicans Go Populist

Transcript

Friday, January 13, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And here's presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich defending his attacks against presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

[CLIP]:

NEWT GINGRICH:

Crony capitalism, where people pay each other off at the expense of the rest of the country, is not free enterprise. And raising questions about that is not wrong.

[APPLAUSE][END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

To drive home that point, the Gingrich super PAC has just released a 28-minute video polemic excoriating Romney as a corporate raider who callously killed jobs as head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm. Ed Kilgore in The New Republic called it “a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at the white working class id.” Certainly, it was a gift to Romney competitors, like Texas Governor Rick Perry.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY:

And I happen to think that companies like Bain Capital could have come in and helped these companies, if they truly were venture capitalists, but they're not. They’ve vulture capitalists.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The interesting part in all this is that this unexpected boon to Romney haters, playing on computer screens everywhere and backed up by political ads all over South Carolina, has created a different split in the GOP than we've seen between old line Republicans and Tea Partiers on Capitol Hill. Warring Republicans seem to be engaged, however politically motivated, in a scorched earth argument over the impact of unbridled market capitalism. A temporary blip? Maybe.

But hearing such arguments in the mouths of conservatives does suggest a change in the wind. Historian Charles Postel says it could merely be a Newt-generated dust storm that will pass.

CHARLES POSTEL:

His goal here is simply to hurt Romney. And I'm not sure there's any lasting significance to this, except, you know, there's a reason why Newt Gingrich [LAUGHS] is considered a bomb thrower in his party.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The National Review said the fact that Bain’s  business practices we're both legit and productive doesn't mean they weren't distasteful and politically toxic. So it isn't just a grudge match with Gingrich; there seems to be something else going on.

CHARLES POSTEL:

What’s going on is those sections of the Republican Party which don't like Romney are using the Bain equity firm as a political cudgel. People who were discontent with Romney wouldn't have a case to make without the context that this is four years into the great financial collapse brought about by Wall Street irresponsibility, to a large extent. It’s exactly the type of discussion that the Occupy Wall Street movement has pushed effectively so, because it resonates so widely.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This is from the Gingrich super PAC film. It seems that the Republican opponents are engaging in class warfare.

[CLIP]:

NARRATOR:

Wall Street's corporate raiders made billions of dollars.

FEMALE REPORTER:

…private equity leaders getting rich at the expense of American workers.

NARRATOR:

Nothing was spared. Nothing mattered, but greed.

[END CLIP]

CHARLES POSTEL:

They could patch this up relatively quickly and without a lot of damage, but I think it shows the underlying vulnerability. Somewhere along the line, the Republicans are gonna have to retool their message to address these questions of economic inequality and the role of Wall Street and its misbehavior. They can’t just stick with - we should tax them less and deregulate them more. I don't think that's a viable political message over the long haul.

And I think this particular bloodletting within the Republican Party shows that we are going to have a very tumultuous campaign, and these issues are going to be right in the middle of it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

There's already been a backlash. You have people like Rush Limbaugh,  Sean Hannity,  Jim DeMint, Mike Huckabee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Wall Street Journal - all arguing against the Republicans who have criticized Mitt Romney. And, in fact, Nikki Haley, who is the governor of South Carolina, said recently, we have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like “dang Democrats” against the free market.

CHARLES POSTEL:

That's the conundrum they're up against.  It is a problem for their party. This isn't the first time this has happened though. In the original populist revolt of the 1890s, the populace pushed against economic inequality. They wanted to income taxes on the top 1 percent. As a party they lost out but in doing so both Democrats and Republicans had to take on chunks of the populist program, and that’s why we have the progressive income tax. That's where we get banking regulation. That’s where we get a whole series of measures to help the middle class and working people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Many of which have been subsequently swept away.

CHARLES POSTEL:

Yes, and that’s one of the most fascinating features of the elections right now. The debates that took place in the 1890s, in the early 1900s, are being replicated today. On the one side, you have Glenn Beck and the Tea Party talking about what set America off on the wrong foot was the progressive era - Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. That's where we got the income tax and all the bad things that have come to America.

[LAUGHS] And, on the other side, you have Barack Obama giving a speech last month about trying to resurrect the specter of Teddy Roosevelt. So now we're living in a second “Gilded Age” when we have new levels of economic inequality unseen for a century. And those old debates are still with us.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Getting a sense of historical déjà vu?

CHARLES POSTEL:

[LAUGHS] Y – as in 1896 –

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

- and William Jennings Bryan versus McKinley?   Something like that, yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] Charles, thank you very much.

CHARLES POSTEL:

It’s been nice talking to you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Charles Postel teaches history at San Francisco State University, and he is the author of The Populist Vision.