Now that Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy is dead, the media is performing an autopsy on “Sam’s Club Republicanism.”
That’s the notion—made famous by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in a 2005 Weekly Standard article, which they later turned into a book—that the GOP needs to reconnect with the working-class and independent voters who made it a majority party under Nixon and Reagan. These voters are conservative, but they’re worried about paying their bills and making ends meet. They’re not opposed to government: they just want it to do something for them, as opposed to for the rich. As Pawlenty put it in 2002, the GOP needs “to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.” Thus was an idea—that’s conservative for branding strategy—born.
Sam’s Club Republicanism often gets touted as the brainchild of “a group of young conservative intellectuals,” but it was never more than a marketing ploy. And hardly a new one. Before the Sam’s Club Republican, there was the Reagan Democrat, the Silent Majority, or, going way back, William Graham Sumner’s Forgotten Man.
It’s not that there is no such thing as conservative ideas; I’ve written a whole book about them. It’s just that conservative ideas are born out of social cataclysms—the French Revolution, abolition, the Russian Revolution, the New Deal, the 1960s—in which people with power lose power. Real concrete power: over peasants, slaves, workers, blacks, wives. Conservatism, strange as it may sound, is the voice of the dispossessed: the aristocrats, masters, employers, whites, and husbands who’ve had their power taken away from them and want it back.
Sam’s Club Republicanism is not a response to that kind of loss. Nor is it a response, ultimately, to the travails of the working class. What it is a response to is the waning position of the GOP. As Douthat and Salam made clear in their original article, their concern is “the long-term political viability of the Republican party.”
But a larger problem is that even the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program–Bush’s vision of an “ownership society,” the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan–have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It’s not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands–it’s that there’s shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.
Or as Matt Continetti put it in a 2007 Weekly Standard follow-up piece:
Behind all this new thinking [Sam's Club Republicanism] lies a political reality. Independents are moving rapidly away from the Republican party. According to the National Exit Poll, Republicans lost independent voters by a staggering 18 points in 2006. A recent Pew survey reveals Democrats have a 15-point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked the party with which they identify.
That may be fine as electoral diagnosis, but it’s not the stuff from which conservative ideas are made. And without ideas, as every young conservative will tell you, the movement is nothing.
With Pawlenty out of the race, the various proponents of Sam’s Club Republicanism are now wondering what went wrong. The early consensus seems to be that Pawlenty was never true to Sam’s Club ideals. Referring to a National Review writer who once touted Pawlenty’s potential Sam’s Club street cred, Salam tweeted today, “I have to say, @timpawlenty could have gone much further if he had run according to the @RameshPonnuru playbook.”
But if Sam’s was a club even its founder never wanted to be a member of, perhaps it’s time the Mad Men of the GOP got themselves a brand new brand.