Patrick Ruffini keeps dancing around the edges of what he needed to say in this post, but he has a strong conclusion:

We need to be confident, like the left is, that we are the natural governing party because our ideas are in alignment with basic American principles, and quit treating middle class, working class, or rural Americans like an interest group to be mollified by symbolic, substance-free BS.

The trouble with this is that I think Ruffini is only half right when he identifies Joe the Plumber gimmickry as a function of defensiveness and weakness. The rest of the problem is unwittingly demonstrated by Ruffini’s own assertion that “we are the natural governing party” and his complaint about treating different groups of voters as an “interest group.” Would that the GOP actually treated these people like interest groups by paying attention to their interests!

It seems to me that conservatives and Republicans have assumed the GOP is the natural governing party, at least regarding the Presidency and to some extent as it relates to Congress since ’94, which is why so many have continued to insist that America is a “center-right nation” in face of mounting evidence that it is not and hasn’t been for a while. Symbolic gimmickry does stem in part from a lack of confidence, but it is more the product of a movement and party that have ceased to understand, much less address, most of the pressing concerns of working- and middle-class Americans. The party assumes that all it needs to do is show up, push the right pseudo-populist buttons and reap the rewards, and for the most part the movement cheers. See Palin, Sarah.

The GOP settles for offering “symbolic, substance-free BS” because enough conservatives are already persuaded that Republican policies obviously benefit the middle class, so there is no pressure to make Republican policy actually serve the interests of Republican constituents. It is taken for granted that this is already happening, but voters have been showing for several cycles that many of them do not believe this. Politically Democrats have been gaining ground in such unlikely places as Ohio and Indiana, which would be inexplicable if the GOP obviously and reliably represented working- and middle-class Americans. Of course, lately these voters don’t see it that way, but instead see the right’s pseudo-populists denounce workers for being overpaid, reject measures that would direct some spending to American industries that their free trade zeal has helped gut and even talk about a spending freeze in the middle of a severe recession.

That brings us again to the stimulus debate. There are good arguments to be made against building up a glut of additional debt, which will be the result of this legislation, namely that it will delay recovery and fuel rising interest rates and inflation (in combination with all of the money that has been poured into the system over the last several months). That isn’t what Ruffini says. Instead he effectively makes the pro-stimulus argument for the other side:

This sense of frugality, orderliness, and personal responsibility is something everything [sic] aspires to in difficult times. This is why Obama’s pitch is fundamentally off-key if framed correctly. People’s first instincts in a recession are not to overspend, but to tighten their belts.

This is a hanging curve ball for some progressive blogger, and for all I know one of them has already hit it out. A supporter of the plan would say, “Yes, and it is because this is the first instinct for private households that government has to pick up the slack.” Then again, if frugality had been the order of the day, private household debt would not be as staggeringly great as it is, and if household debt were lower or if more people had significant savings tax cuts would be more likely to be stimulative. The irony is that an economy and a whole host of policies oriented around facilitating consumption, which most conservatives thought (still think?)* were wonderful, create a situation where money regained through tax cuts goes into paying down debt–because the first instinct of most people in a recession is not to overspend. In other words, the habits of consumerism (e.g., overspending) have reduced the efficacy of tax cuts as an instrument of economic policy, which is one more reason why you might think conservatives would come to recognize and oppose those habits.

However, it is important to bear in mind that some significant part of this build-up of debt was not simply profligacy, but seemed to be necessary for many households to make up for stagnating incomes that were becoming increasingly inadequate during the housing bubble. That bubble was fueled by the absurdly low rates that the Fed kept so artificially low, but I have yet to see very many movement conservatives questioning their traditional adoration for Greenspan and his works. Of course, there have always been principled exceptions to the cult. As we all know, income stagnation is something that most conservatives and Republicans have spent years pretending was not happening, because it did not fit in with the assumption that working- and middle-class Americans were thriving as part of the “greatest story never told.” It is the failure to acknowledge and address all of these things along with the preference for using symbolic gimmickry that begin to account for the lamentable states of conservatism and the GOP. There is also the war, but movement and party have become so invested in it that I have my doubts whether they can ever recognize its role in discrediting both with the public.

Update: Here is an additional CPAC myopia connection: At CPAC, John Bolton repeated the claim that this is a “center-right country.”

* Rod points to a particularly silly quote from Michael “Consumption Is A Moral Duty” Gerson. This is one of those cases where Gerson’s bleeding-heart do-gooder personality fits perfectly with his preference for policies that usher in “creative” destruction: we’re being self-indulgent for the good of the world!

Second Update: Several of the reactions to this post have been something along the lines of, “Wow, a conservative who admits income stagnation is real–I thought they were like unicorns!” In fact, one reason I know anything about this is the work of several other conservative writers who were paying attention to this subject long before I did. Specifically, Ross and Reihan discuss this subject in Grand New Party, and I’m sure that there have been a few others who have written about it. Take this as another bit of proof that “reformist” conservatives are the only game in town at the moment when it comes to developing an agenda on most domestic policy questions. Other conservatives who are not interested in that agenda need to start putting together an alternative if they don’t want the “reformists” to win internal policy debates by default.