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Time for free-market populism from the GOP

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President Obama, ignoring his own calls to leave rhetoric at the door, has relied on populist demagoguery throughout the debt-ceiling negotiations. But given the President's record of bailouts, his dedication to corporate-welfare handouts, and his calendar filled with $35,800-a-plate fundraisers, Republicans ought to take the populist cudgel from Obama and use it against Democrats.

Obama reached the height of misleading populist bombast at the Twitter town hall last week when he accused Republicans of using the debt ceiling "as a gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners, or oil and gas companies that are making billions of dollars because the price of gasoline has gone up so high."

Obama's statement, like much of what he says on taxes, is misleading in many ways. He makes it sound like Republicans are trying to create special targeted tax breaks, while Republicans actually are -- for better or worse -- fighting off Obama-proposed special targeted tax increases that, in many cases, amount to pure discrimination against politically unpopular companies.

But discrimination against profitable and politically unpopular companies is what populist demagoguery is all about. Republicans feel handcuffed: Who wants to defend Big Oil, even if the facts are on your side?

Instead of trying to defend themselves against Obama's misleading populism, Republicans ought to return fire with some sincere populism in this debt battle.

Populism may seem out of place coming from the GOP -- with its reputation as the party of Big Business, its leaders traipsing around golf courses (John Boehner), joking about being unemployed (Mitt Romney), and sipping $300 bottles of wine (Paul Ryan) -- but Obama's record of crony capitalism makes him a ripe target for attack.

Obama delivered the game-winning RBI for the Wall Street bailout in 2008, and rewarded the bailout's authors, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner, with renomination and a promotion, respectively.

The president's signature legislative accomplishment, the 2010 health care law, was championed by the drugmakers, the biggest single-industry lobby in Washington and one of the most profitable industries in America.

Obama in 2008 shattered fundraising records including the biggest-ever hauls from Wall Street, the defense industry, drug companies, tech companies, HMOs, and more -- and he'll likely repeat that feat this time around.

So, on debt talks, if Obama can focus on tiny quirks in the tax code -- such as five-year depreciation for corporate jets as opposed to seven-year depreciation for commercial jets -- why don't Republicans declare war on corporate welfare, putting the president in the position of defending his Reverse-Robin Hood policies? Obama wants to soak the rich by raising their taxes? Why not soak big business by taking away their taxpayer-funded goodies?

Start with the handouts such as billions in direct grants, in the name of "green energy," to big, well-connected companies like Florida Power & Light. Then there are the green energy loan guarantees, also enriching revolving-door lobbyists and Big Business.

Along the same lines, Republicans could block this year's reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, a corporate-welfare agency that Obama has been steadily expanding. A majority of all of Ex-Im's loans and long-term guarantees subsidize Boeing sales. Banks love this agency, too, because it provides private profit and socialized risk.

Imagine Republicans running to protect taxpayers and reduce the debt by abolishing Ex-Im, while Obama stands with Boeing, GE and Halliburton in preserving this Fannie Mae for manufacturers.

Speaking of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Republicans should try to end those sinkholes. Let Obama, the Realtor lobby and the banks stick up for corporate welfare. Ending ethanol supports would be another no-brainer.

But it's not just handouts Republicans should target. Many regulations serve as gifts to Big Business and theft from small businesses and consumers. The individual mandate in health insurance is the most obvious example, but the Mattel-backed Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act -- a death sentence to small toymakers -- is one of many other regulatory robberies that a populism-fueled GOP would target.

Republicans could reshape the debt debate by showing that Big Government is often a way of protecting Big Business from competition and transferring wealth from ordinary taxpayers to whoever has the best lobbyist. But the GOP track record suggests this won't happen.

During the health care debate, Republicans mostly attacked the public option and Medicare cuts -- the provisions that Big Business most opposed. It was the same story during financial regulation: Republicans trained most of their fire on killing a bank tax.

Obama's populism is all talk. Republicans could respond with actual attacks on corporate welfare -- that is, unless Obama is right about their motivations.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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