In their March piece in Commentary, Gerson and Pete Wehner went for all of these points with gusto. Gerson’s criticism of Paul, and libertarian-ish conservatism generally, is that it won’t address his first point from that piece – the economic challenges of working and middle class Americans. But the rest of his prescribed agenda doesn’t go toward that populist aim any more than Gerson’s support for getting involved in even more international conflicts. It seems very unlikely to me that shoving through the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, expanding environmental and anti-emission regulations, guilt-ridding prison reform, trying to convince Hollywood to promote marriage and family, and making the case for getting involved in Syria is going to be an agenda that matches up with the lived experience of Americans in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. This has little in common with Walker’s more aggressive approach. Instead, it sounds like an agenda designed to appeal to upper class white people.
This is a good example of the very real challenges of 2016 agenda formation. The Beltway Burkeans talk a good game about shifting the right’s coalition, but the truth is that their agenda represents a much more modest shift, in large part a reworking of the same ideas they’ve been pitching for years. The most interesting part of that Commentary piece for me remains the criticism Wehner and Gerson level against the rising preference for individualism in place of community. But as Alexander Hamilton reminded us, we must recognize things as they are, not as they ought to be. If you believe that this rise of individualistic fervor is a tide driven by culture and demography, not just politics – that it is much larger than any policy agenda – then the wiser course would be to run with it as opposed to against it. A bolder approach to remaking the coalition would ditch the false promise of technocratic paternalism in favor of a bias toward individual liberty and a rediscovery of the populist agenda which can prevail where Mitt Romney failed. Whether that’s possible depends on the boldness of the 2016 field. It may only take one to pull the others in that direction.