The Tea Party’s New Inequality Tune

Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are trying to repurpose the Republicans as the party of the middle class. Can they do that with the Koch brothers’ millions?

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A Harvard-trained lawyer and the son of a congressman hardly seem the ideal messengers for a political party looking to make inroads with the unemployed, young and minority voters. But when the pitchmen are Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and the party is the GOP in 2014, it all starts to make a little more sense.

Cruz and Paul brought a new, aggressive version of Republican populism into focus this weekend at the first “Freedom Summit” in Manchester, N.H., where they, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and other right-of-center favorites took the stage in the all-important first-in-the-nation primary state.

While all of the speakers came armed with their own plans for how the GOP can win over Americans and retake the White House in 2016, Cruz and Paul in particular took noticeably populist paths to get there.Cruz argued that the wildly wealthy have thrived during the Obama years, while the people suffering the most have been a collection of groups that elected the president in the first place.

“It’s young people. It’s Hispanics. It’s African-Americans. It’s single moms,” Cruz said, listing the victims he sees in the Obama economy. “The rich and powerful, those who walk the corridors of power, are getting fat and happy under the Obama economic agenda. The top 1%, the millionaires and billionaires who the president loves to demagogue, they earn a higher share of our national income than any time since 1928.”

Cruz called for a “growth and opportunity” agenda that would help people like his own father, who came to the United States from Cuba to flee the Castro regime, and finally took a job washing dishes to support his family.

Rand Paul’s brand of populism went deeper than Cruz’s opportunity pitch, wrapping in quotes from Martin Luther King, calling for justice in mandatory minimum sentences and laying out a strategy to win voters over from the Democrats by talking to people Republicans usually talk past—the unemployed, disadvantaged and struggling.

“We cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people and Wall Street,” Paul said, adding that Republicans need to reach out beyond their own supporters and show some compassion while they do it.

“The president is simply loading more people in the wagon. These are not bad people in the wagon. They’re people who are out of work and they’re suffering,” Paul said. “But the debate needs to not be about who cares more. The debate needs to be about whose policies will help more.”

Paul’s and Cruz’s economic populism is a long way from the House GOP’s relentless focus on “job creators,” but they aren’t alone. Former senator Rick Santorum’s new book, Blue Collar Conservatives, picks up where his campaign left off, rapping the GOP for pandering to business owners “to the exclusion of everyone else.”

Before Santorum’s Blue Collar Conservatives came the Tea Party’s “Don’t Tread On Me” protestors, Tim Pawlenty’s Sam’s Club Republicans, the McCain campaign’s everyman, Joe Six Pack, and Pat Buchanan’s populist conservatism of the 1990s.

But as the Republican Party’s own “autopsy” pointed out after the 2012 elections, the overall party’s image has largely devolved to one more interested in helping wealthy donors and big business than regular Americans.

“The perception that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates on the federal level, especially in presidential years,” the document read. “It is a major deficiency that must be addressed.”

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The autopsy was formulated after exit polls from Election Day painted a picture of an out-of-touch party and nominee. Although more people believed Mitt Romney could better handle the economy than the president, 53% said Romney’s policies would benefit the rich, while just 35% said the middle class.

When voters were asked, “Who is more in touch with people like you?” Obama won 53% to 43%. Among people who wanted a president who “cares about people,” Romney lost to Obama by a massive margin— 18% to 81%.

To correct the course, the GOP plan suggested that future Republican candidates talk in “normal, people-oriented terms,” and go to communities “where Republicans do not normally go to listen and make our case.”

On the first point, Cruz and Paul excelled in New Hampshire. While Cruz related policies back to his father and similar young immigrants, Paul talked about the real world circumstances that left many Americans in dire straits. “Anybody here ever been unemployed?” he asked. “Anybody here ever had a tough time? Anybody ever had their salary reduced?”

But behind all of the up-from-the-bootstraps storytelling was a deep irony that neither man mentioned—that the sponsors of the Freedom Summit were the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, founded by GOP mega-donors David and Charles Koch, and Citizens United, the organization whose legal challenges to campaign finance laws coincided with a massive influx of unregulated corporate and labor money into campaigns through dark money groups and Super PACS.

Speaking at an AFP or Citizens United event does not automatically disqualify a candidate from being an authentic populist, nor does having tens of millions of dollars to plow into political campaigns, as the Koch brothers have done in recent years.

Luke Hilgemann, the vice president of AFP, said the organization is a champion, not a predator, of the working class. “If you look at AFP’s message, it is all about showing how Big Government, collectivist policies have a negative impact on the average American.”

But Sen. Bernie Sanders summed up Democrats’ broad contempt for Koch populists in one Tweet: “The #FreedomSummit means freedom to pollute, freedom to work for $3 p/hr and if you’re old without insurance you have the freedom to die.”

The 2012 election results raise the question for Republicans: can one party truly be the home to both the millionaires and billionaires that Ted Cruz and Rand Paul warned about in their speeches, and the struggling, unemployed or working-class voters that they were trying to appeal to over the weekend?

For Mitt Romney and the 2012 GOP, the answer was no. Time will tell whether Paul, Cruz or another Republican can do better in 2016 and beyond.