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Op-ed: Free-market absolutism is killing the GOP

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Opinion,Op-Eds

With a new baseball season under way, no major league manager needs to be reminded that if his team consistently fails to reach the playoffs, he'll likely be fired.

Yet in the political big leagues, when the GOP strikes out with the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, the party sticks with the same old roster of political consultants, think-tank policy wonks and losing-candidate types.

That familiar lineup shares one big liability: libertarian economics, which has been undermining the Republican brand with the party's natural middle-class base for years.

Indeed, the failure of Mitt Romney's economic platform to resonate with an anxious electorate was no fluke. That message represents the heart and soul of a party that started sleeping with far-right libertarians in 1990.

That's when President George H.W. Bush -- breaking ranks with Ronald Reagan's 1986 landmark reforms that equalized tax rates for wages, capital gains and dividends -- opened the door to a two-tier system that delivers ever more tax breaks to wealthy global investors at the expense of American workers.

Today, amid a long GOP losing streak, the same ideologues are still pushing free trade, globalization and marginal-rate tax cuts. Meanwhile, conservatives seeking to craft a center-right agenda that would directly and substantially boost middle America find themselves struggling uphill.

Many influential Republican policy wonks concede the GOP middle-class disconnect, downward mobility and the waning of Midwest manufacturing by Wall Street finance.

But even these libertarian fellow travelers think mostly in terms of party "modernization" or "reforms" of education, health care, welfare and entitlement policy. When they do place tangible policies on the table, the focus remains narrow: helping the poor and illegals, not the vast middle class.

Consequently, Republicans in Congress aren't calling for new government-business collaborations that might create millions of well-paying manufacturing jobs, patterned after Abraham Lincoln's push to construct a transcontinental railroad, Franklin Roosevelt's mobilization of industry to fight World War II, Dwight Eisenhower's rollout of the Interstate Highway System, or John F. Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon.

Nor do they see the job-creating potential of keeping at home, as Alexander Hamilton would insist, the production of all materials, systems and technology used by the armed forces.

Fearing such ideas might increase federal spending, strengthen private-sector trade unions or damage the free-trade regime, the party falls back on familiar turf: fiscal, tax and regulatory matters.

So the best that Republicans can muster are static plans of budget balancing in distant out-years, like those of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which shortchanges middle-income families with more tax breaks for the wealthy and scaled-back popular earned-benefits programs.

The GOP's embrace of free-market absolutism also explains why party elites support the fiction of same-sex marriage and turning America into an open-borders, low-wage country via immigration amnesty, further weakening the social and economic foundations of middle America.

In the libertarian universe, "economic freedom" trumps everything: civilization, nation, statecraft, patriotism, industry, culture and family.

This "economic freedom," however, diverges greatly from the liberty that transformed the United States into an industrial, financial and military colossus.

The latter ideal was always mediated through federal policies that aimed to build a national economy worthy of a great nation, from Henry Clay's American System of economic development to the regulated "utility capitalism" of the 20th century.

Until they seek inspiration from American history and their own presidents rather than from Ayn Rand or Friedrich Hayek, Republicans will remain estranged from the middle class they claim to represent. And they'll never make the playoffs, let alone win the White House.

Robert W. Patterson served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.

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