Former Governor Tim Pawlenty withdraw as a candidate for the Republican Presidential nominee for 2012 after finishing a disappointing third place in the Iowa straw polls.  By voting Pawlenty off the island, the Democratic Party should seize the opportunity this affords. The GOP now narrowed the field of voters which will respond to a positive message. (They may plan to rely exclusively on the anti-Obama sentiment, though.)  As stated by Ben Smith of Politico:

The departure of Tim Pawlenty this morning won’t have a major impact on a race that had already taken shape without him — that’s why he dropped out.

The move makes clear that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has fully seized the space Pawlenty sought to occupy, of the established conservative alternative. It also marks a failure of the Sam’s Club conservative brand Pawlenty sought, at times, to personify.

That notion of a populist conservatism with a blue-collar edge fit Pawlenty’s story, and his denunciations of the trifecta of Big Government, Big Labor and Big Business fit its populist model. But the idea was ultimately a solution for a party tacking to the center, and this is a moment dominated by the right. Pawlenty, sensing that, never fully adopted that populism — his denunciations of Big Business, for instance, didn’t have a real policy aspect to go with them. He used his blue-collar biography as an appealing detail but couldn’t connect it to a larger, different pitch.

Sam’s Club conservatism was floated by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam when the Republican Party felt a need to reinvent itself. It seems to have lost out, in Pawlenty’s campaign and in the party, to the tea party grass roots, interested in rolling government back, not reshaping it.

Pawlenty’s “populist conservatism” represents a unique strand within GOP ranks. While this strand may not be well represented within activist circles, it is actually more representative of a vast majority of casual, Republican voters in Middle America and the South. An ideas-driven message catered to these Sam’s Club conservatives has now been completely eschewed by the GOP. Left remaining and vying for the control of the 2012 GOP message are two remaining voices;  the GOP’s message for 2012 will  either be dominated by a baptized pseudo-libertarianism  (represented by Gov.  Rick Perry and Rep. Michelle Bachmann) or Establishment-style, corporate cronyism (represented by Mitt Romney.)

This scenario presents a distinct opportunity for Democrats especially in the South and Midwest. For as was true in 2005, is largely remains true today:

This is the Republican party of today–an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement. To borrow a phrase from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Republicans are now “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”

Therein lies a great political danger for Republicans, because on domestic policy, the party isn’t just out of touch with the country as a whole, it’s out of touch with its own base. And its majority is hardly unassailable.

Neither Tea-Partyism nor Corporate Cronyism appeal to a large swath of these white working-class constituency. With the GOP dividing its loyalty between those camps, the Democratic Party should retool its message and expressly appeal to these Sam’s Club conservatives.

While their opinions on social issues are similar, Sam’s Club conservatives differ fundamentally from the vocal Tea Partiers and Corporate Cronies. Only 32% of Sam’s Club conservatives have a positive opinion of the Tea Party movement, itself. (And this poll was taken in May before the debt ceiling brinksmanship displayed by the Tea Partiers earlier this month.) “In June, 45 percent of the National Association of Evangelicals leadership said Pawlenty was their top-pick for the GOP candidacy. (The next favorite pick—“no preference,” followed by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.)”

On specific policy issues as well, there is great difference between Sam’s Club conservatives and the GOP. For instance, when asked whether business corporations make too much profit, only 13% Tea Party-types believe so but 58% of Main St. Repubulicans (Sam’s Club conservatives) answered in the affirmative. Or when asked whether environmental laws costs too much in jobs and hurt the economy: 92% of Tea Partiers believe they do, while a minimal 22% of Sam’s Club conservatives do. 66% of Sam’s Club conservatives believe we should actually focus on alternative energy while 77% of Tea Partiers chant “Drill, Baby, Drill.”  Even on “toxic” heath care reform issue, there is great division: 80% Tea Partiers see “mostly bad effects” while only 47% of Sam’s Club Republicans responded similarly.

(Note: Pawlenty failed not because of his ideas, but because he “didn’t have the guts to speak his mind when it counted” and he “bowed to the tea party wing of his party and abandoned the qualities that made him a popular two-term Minnesota governor.“)

While these Sam’s Club conservatives will likely never fully embrace President Obama’s candidacy (Sam’s Club disapproval at 68% vs. 97% for Tea Partiers), these voters could be convinced to support new Democratic Congressional and state-level candidates which can enunciate the convictions of these conservatives.  This will especially be true if Congressional Republicans tie themselves to a Perry-Bachmann Tea-Partism ( i.e. “Medicare and Social Security are Unconstitutional“) or Romney corporatism.  Sam’s Club conservatives will be open to alternatives. The Democratic Party can provide the alternative (or a third-party candidate will).

The Sam’s Club conservatism is quite compatible with a new vision for Democrats.  As Douthat and Salaam suggested to the GOP in the original piece: “The Party of Sam’s Club.”

The third possibility–and the best, both for the party and the country as a whole–would be to take the “big-government conservatism” vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability. This wouldn’t mean an abandonment of small-government objectives, but it would mean recognizing that these objectives–individual initiative, social mobility, economic freedom–seem to be slipping away from many less-well-off Americans, and that serving the interests of these voters means talking about economic insecurity as well as about self-reliance. It would mean recognizing that you can’t have an “ownership society” in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own. It would mean matching the culture war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family–the institution best capable of providing cultural stability and economic security–at the heart of the GOP agenda.

(BTW: you will never see something like this in the Weekly Standard or any major Republican publication today: a sign of how things have dramatically changed in just 6 years.)

Douthat and Salam recommended a whole host of specific policies from welfare reform to tax policy (which appear quite “progressive” for today’s GOP).  However, according to their analysis, to appeal to Sam’s Club conservatives, the policies would need be expressly pro-family:

Conservatives have long emphasized the importance of these cultural factors, and rightly so–but just as culture impacts economics, so too can economic policy affect cultural trends. It’s possible to imagine policies that would support a virtuous cycle, in which increased working class economic security shores up familial stability. And policies that offer government support to economically insecure families wouldn’t be money for nothing. America, like any nation, depends on parents’ willingness to raise healthy and well-educated children. . .

Crafting pro-family policies that stand against this trend is not a question of turning back the clock to some lost Ozzie-and-Harriet golden age, as critics of social conservatism often assert. Quite the opposite: Precisely because the world has changed, with the demise of lifetime employment and increasing returns to education, strong families are growing ever more important, and policies that encourage people to form them and keep them together are ever more necessary.

Appealing to Sam’s Club Republicans will be critical for any success for Democrats in the future in Alabama. I had good success in my campaign for State Senate appealing to a district of these voters (largely, rural white voters) with such a ideas.  While appealing to Sam’s Club conservatives,  Democrats remain faithful to core-Democratic principles. For instance, as I suggested before, some policies which perfectly appeal to these Sam’s Club conservatives are:

  • Relocalizing the Economy. From agriculture to manufacturing to energy-production to banking, we need to empower locally-owned businesses to meet our local needs, locally.
  • Rejecting Crony Corporatism. In a day when those who are positioned to “work the system” abuse the public coffers as a source of loot and use the arm of the government as a instrument of plunder, we need to return to Andrew Jackson’s slogan: “Opportunity for All, Special Privilege for None.”
  • Rebuilding Wealth-Producing Assets in the Poor and Working Classes.  Working people are far less economically secure than ever before in US history yet the upper-classes live in a Second Gilded Age.  We must intentionally return economic power to the working people by developing sustainable and wide private-ownership of assets and capital; build, to steal a phrase, “An Ownership Society.”
  • Re-humanizing the Economy: Alabama Democrats should purge our minds of the current idolatry of the market and develop policies which treat economics as if families, communities, and our posterity mattered. There are “weightier matters” and considerations than merely ballooning corporate profits-sheets.  There are ideals and institutions worthy of protection from modern inhumane market-forces.  The economic war which was unleashed against our families and communities over the past several decades must be turned back.

Alabama Democrats have learned the following to be true:

The greatest danger facing any political majority is ideological sclerosis–the belief that because the party has attained political power on the strength of certain policies, those policies will always and forever keep them in power. With sclerosis, come stasis and corruption; with stasis and corruption, eventually, comes defeat.

The Alabama Democratic Party’s road to defeat in November 2010 seemed to follow that exact path. The Republicans have unwittingly provided us a unique opportunity now. While the GOP disregards the voters which have formed its core-voting constituency since Reagan, the Democratic Party in the South and Midwest can re-gear and re-tool our message to meet their concerns and needs. Our theme:

Above all, it should be in favor of limited government, and in favor of using government’s considerable power to shore up the institution that makes a limited government possible–the beleaguered but resilient American family.