Writing in the New York Times, David Leonhardt claims that a “new centrism” is taking hold in Washington based around “neopopulism” and a mistrust of free markets. It’s part of a welter of stories and think pieces claiming that the parties, and especially Republicans, are retreating from a market-friendly economic consensus.

Yet the evidence for a new bipartisan populism is thin. If anything, congressional votes and polling show that Republicans are more and more opposed to the left-wing economic drift of the Democratic Party. Insofar as cross-party majorities exist for economic interventionism, there’s nothing “neo” about them. They’re just part of the classic populist playbook of buying votes with borrowed money.

The only domestic policy vote totals that Leonhardt cites to advance his thesis are those for the so-called Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act. But these votes don’t demonstrate a new dawn of bipartisan populism. Infrastructure bills have long enjoyed support across the aisle, and, despite the name, the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law represents a modern low point of bipartisanship. The law won the votes of 19 Republican senators, with 30 opposed, as Leonhardt mentions. He did not make reference to the 200 House Republicans who voted against the law in the House, with just 13 in favor. By contrast, the last big infrastructure legislation, the so-called FAST Act in 2015, tallied 40 Senate Republican votes in favor and just 14 opposed. The act got 178 House Republicans on board (and all voting Democrats) versus just 65 opposed.

The reason that the recent infrastructure act secured so few Republican votes is that it was much more progressive than previous legislation. While the 2015 FAST Act spent $305 billion (just under $400 billion today) and was largely self-funded, the 2021 law cost $1.2 trillion and added about $250 billion in direct deficit spending. It focused less on core transportation priorities and more on progressive wish-lists, such as the green energy transition. Not surprisingly, a more left-wing bill garnered less Republican support.

The CHIPS Act, as Leonhardt observes, did get 17 Republican votes in the Senate, but that still left a large majority of Senate Republicans opposed. Leonhardt failed to note that 187 House Republicans voted against CHIPS, with just 24 in favor. Or consider Biden’s American Rescue Plan and his Inflation Reduction Act, neither of which secured a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate. Such overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers against these acts do not demonstrate a new populist centrism. Considering the major economic bills passed the last time a Democrat held the White House, near the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, one finds much stronger bipartisan support for spending bills such as the 21st Century Cures Act and regulatory bills such as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, as well as the FAST Act.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article similar to Leonhardt’s casting Republican fans of trustbuster Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan—so-called “khanservatives”—as part of the general trend toward populist economic policies in the party. The only congressional policy vote offered to support this argument: 39 House Republicans backed a bill to raise fees on corporations to fund antitrust efforts. But that left 168 Republicans opposed. Less than 20 percent of House Republicans in favor of a bill does not make for a new populist coalition. Historically, too, antitrust was one of the most bipartisan activities in Washington. The article notes that Khan got 13 Republican Senate votes for confirmation. But Obama’s FTC chair, Edith Ramirez, got a unanimous vote when first confirmed to the agency. Here again, however, the aggressively leftward agenda of Biden officials such as Khan has pushed Republicans away.

Some commentators could argue that these votes demonstrate what until recently was the media consensus—namely, that an increasingly rigid economic conservatism has overtaken the Republican Party. By the most commonly used measure of partisan voting, Biden’s first Congress was the most divided in modern history, with Republicans more opposed to Democratic proposals than ever. In truth, these trends show how overall policy has moved sharply to the left in recent years, alienating more Republicans.

Increased anti-trade measures provide the strongest evidence of bipartisan populism. Yet, even here, and despite the sharp rhetoric, the World Bank estimates that the U.S.’s average tariff rate in 2021 was only 1.5 percent, an all-time low. In recent polls, the number of people who view trade as an “opportunity” instead of a “threat” was 61 percent, the highest in any period before Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, it was during his presidency that support for trade soared to unprecedented heights, almost reaching 80 percent among Republicans (though Republican support for trade declined back to early 2010s levels after Trump left office). 

Both Trump and Biden did impose significant new tariffs, as populists demanded, but over 90 percent of their higher tariff charges came from China. Considering China’s transformation under Xi Jinping into an openly hegemonic Communist power, trade limitations against it would fall into a long and non-populist foreign policy tradition. During the Cold War, large bipartisan majorities supported limitations on trade with the Soviet Union and its satellites. Voters and politicians understood that some trade, though not all, with a geopolitical rival could be destructive. Similar limited actions against a rival today are not necessarily populist, whether neo- or otherwise.

The results of the recent surge of largely partisan economic populism under Biden have not been positive. Stifling inflation and stagnant wages have not enamored the public on “Bidenomics.” Republicans who voted for big spending bills funded by borrowed money now find themselves under political attack. Under Biden’s presidency, the number of Americans who favor less government services and lower taxes grew rapidly, with 50 percent in favor, versus just 19 percent preferring more services and higher taxes. A supply-side agenda that met this demand would likely prove popular and could help restore America’s economic dynamism.

Contrary to claims that we’re seeing something new among Republicans, the party in the past often has supported big spending bills that increased the deficit. And the GOP has always had an economically interventionist wing, as represented by politicians from Richard Nixon to Jacob Javits. More recent interventionist voices such as Senator J. D. Vance are part of this long heritage. But they represent a minority position in a party growing more frustrated by the leftward tilt of its opponents across the aisle.

Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images


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