What's the Matter With Iowa?

By Mike Dorf

Thomas Frank's book (and subsequently a movie), What's the Matter with Kansas?, asks why so many blue-collar Americans vote against their economic interests.  The answer isn't hard to find, of course: For roughly the last generation in American politics, the Republican Party has housed social conservatism and economic libertarianism, while the Democratic Party has been home to social liberalism and a somewhat more progressive set of economic policies.  The Kansans who are not plutocrats but voting Republican pretty clearly place greater weight on social issues.

There is no inherent reason why the coalition of social conservatives and economic libertarians that is the modern Republican Party should last forever.  Mike Huckabee's strong showing in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses could have presaged an interesting realignment.  As Arkansas governor, Huckabee had been a social conservative with an economically progressive streak.  It's not surprising that he appealed to Iowa Republicans, because with Huckabee, middle-class social conservatives could vote their pocketbook interests AND their social consciences.

Yesterday's Iowa Caucuses offered an interesting -- and to my mind, discouraging -- contrast.  Pundits and analysts will sort through which of Paul, Romney and Santorum did best in light of expectations, but I'd like to note how each of them presented Iowa Republicans with a different way to reconcile social conservatism with economic libertarianism.

Romney should have been the least appealing candidate to Tom Frank/Huckabee voters.  In caucusing for Romney, a middle-class social conservative would basically be making a bet that Romney understands that if he is to be the Republican nominee, he has to pursue socially conservative policies should he become President, even though it's pretty obvious from Romney's term as Massachusetts governor that he is either a social liberal or, more likely, doesn't care about social issues.  Socially conservative middle-class Iowans would only take that bet if they thought that Romney was the Republicans' best hope for winning the general.

Santorum was a much more obvious choice, as a genuine social conservative who genuinely cares about social issues.  Santorum was hardly the progressive spendthrift that his Republican rivals have attempted to portray in the last week or so, but it is true that, as a Senator, Santorum was not especially right-wing on matters of fiscal policy.  In a rational universe, this would have counted as a plus for him with middle-class Iowans, but in these more ideologically charged times, Santorum had to defend his record by arguing that he really did try to rein in government spending (on programs that benefit the middle class and others) as a Senator.

Which brings me to Ron Paul.  I tend to share the widespread view that Paul's views, especially his foreign policy views, are probably too unorthodox for the modern Republican Party, but I think that focusing on that fact may lead us to overlook the way in which Paul is the vanguard of a new wave of Tea Party Republicans.  For Paul, and even more so for his son the Senator from Kentucky, fiscal conservatism is a social issue.   Paul does not appeal to social conservatives by saying, as Romney and other traditional Wall Street Republicans do, "leave the economy to me and my banker friends and I'll give you the courts and the other stuff you care about."  Nor does Paul attempt to assuage the Wall Street wing of the Republican coalition by giving them low taxes and minimal regulation so that they can leave him to jail doctors who perform abortions, as Santorum does.  Instead, Paul is fervently socially conservative and fervently economic libertarian.  He treats the debt and the deficit -- and for that matter, the supposed sins of the Federal Reserve -- as themselves moral issues.

Don't get me wrong.  I think that Paul's economic views (like many of his other views) are dangerously misguided.  He proposes to end the Fed and replace it with the gold standard, which would be a disastrously contractionary policy.   But in bringing moral fervor to economic libertarianism he has in an important sense dissolved the problem of the odd-couple nature of the modern Republican Party.

Romney will probably end up as the Republican nominee, but as I see it, the likes of Paul are its future.