The winds of change are blowing. A political rebellion is brewing. The 2012 Republican presidential nomination is taking place within historic times: the decline and fall of big-government liberalism. President Obama’s attempt to transform America is finally creating a powerful backlash. The Obama presidency lies in rubble; failure has been its defining characteristic. The country is facing an economic crisis. Unemployment is high. Growth is anemic. Gas prices are sky-high. America is choking on its debt. We are bogged down in three failed wars. Mr. Obama’s popularity is plummeting. The liberal regime - once dominant - is tottering.
For months, many GOP voters have not been enthusiastic about the current crop of candidates because none of them seem able to address the dangers confronting America. Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman Jr. - they are conventional Republicans with establishment ideas. The presumptive front-runner is former Gov. Mitt Romney. His support may be wide, but it’s thin. His flip-flops on homosexual marriage and abortion, defense of Romneycare (universal health care in Massachusetts) and watered-down internationalism in foreign affairs make him vulnerable to an insurgent challenger.
Yet, at last, the Republican race is heating up with two rising stars. The dark horse is Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. She clearly won the debate in New Hampshire. Mrs. Bachmann is articulate, telegenic and feisty. She is a populist conservative who champions God, country and family. She is closely aligned with the Tea Party movement, and is serious about slashing deficits and controlling spending. She is a devout Christian, who is staunchly pro-life, pro-family and pro-gun rights. Moreover, Mrs. Bachmann is a nationalist in foreign policy. She opposes the Libyan intervention, rightly demanding that constitutional checks and balances be reimposed upon Mr. Obama’s war-making powers. With the exception of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, she has the best grasp of one seminal reality: America can no longer afford the welfare-warfare state. The era of nation-building and global democratic revolution is over.
Mrs. Bachmann is more than a Sarah Palin clone. On domestic policy, the Minnesota Republican is more substantive; on foreign policy, she is more serious; and most importantly, she has much lower negative ratings - especially among independents. Mrs. Palin (should she run) may be able to win the GOP nomination. The presidency, however, is a bridge too far. The media will eviscerate her. Outside of her intense base, she is despised and distrusted. She personifies the cheap politics of celebrity. Mrs. Bachmann is the opposite: a relentless enemy of cultural liberalism, who can forge a diverse populist coalition. She appeals to the vast middle of America. Her campaign has the potential to tap into the country’s profound alienation from Washington. And thus, she is surging in the polls.
The other potential major candidate is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. His top aides are signaling that he is clearly thinking about running. If he does, Mr. Perry would skyrocket to the top of the heap, smashing most of his GOP rivals - including Mr. Romney. He is the anti-Romney - an authentic Texan, who has a long record of achievement and proven conservative governance. Mr. Romney talks a good game; Mr. Perry actually plays one. The rap against Mr. Perry is that he looks and sounds too much like former President George W. Bush. He has the same twang and cowboy swagger. After the disastrous Bush years, the country does not want another Texan Republican in the White House, say his critics. Maybe.
Yet, Mr. Perry has one trump card: Texas. Under his leadership, the economy has boomed. As the country remains mired in a deep recession, Texas is growing. It has created more private-sector jobs than any other state. He has reined in public spending, restored fiscal responsibility, removed regulatory red tape, maintained flexible labor markets and stood up to the unions. There is no state income tax. He is a real Reaganite. He has combined pro-growth policies with flinty social conservatism.
Moreover, he is a principled defender of the 10th Amendment. He understands that federalism and states’ rights are not just buzzwords. They have been the key to America’s prosperity and success. The most urgent problem of our day is the expansion of the federal leviathan. It is strangling the economy, burying America under a mountain of debt and sapping the country’s vitality. Power must be devolved back to the states, enabling them to become the laboratories of democracy - as our Founding Fathers intended. On a range of economic and regulatory issues, Mr. Perry has directly challenged Washington’s overreach and incompetence.
Both Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry signify a new development in American politics: the rise of nationalist populism. For decades, liberalism has been ascendant. The New Deal erected an entitlement state and brought to power a liberal ruling class - what the conservative philosopher James Burnham called “the managerial class.” This political and cultural cadre has dominated American life. Government agencies, the permanent bureaucracies, the mainstream media, universities, public schools, Hollywood, the arts, trial lawyers, the Federal Reserve, big banks and large financial institutions - they have all helped to sustain the progressive project of turning America into a rootless social democracy.
For a while, it seemed to work. Peace and prosperity ensured that any ideological assault on liberal hegemony could be contained - and eventually marginalized. Now, however, Mr. Obama’s misrule, combined with the growing economic chaos, threatens the very moral legitimacy of our liberal minders. They can no longer be believed or trusted.
Liberalism is in crisis. And as the regime cracks, insurgent populists are starting to fill the void. Middle America is on the march.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.