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Watch Out for the Populists

Populism vs. establishment conservatism. Or Wall Street vs. Main Street. Call the two sides what you want, but they coincide and sometimes conflict within the Republican party and the conservative movement more generally.

What does each side think of Sarah Palin? Or Dede Scozzafava? Do they cringe or rejoice at the sight of unruly Tea Party protesters? Is Rep. Joe Wilson a hero or an embarrassment? In part, the visceral reaction to these people and phenomenon help define the two groups and also portends conflicts in leadership, tactics, and policy preferences between groups on the Right.

In the year since Barack Obama was elected, the populists have been in the ascension. They organized the first mass demonstrations in favor of fiscal conservatism. They focused attention on the dangers of ObamaCare and forced elected leaders to confront the voters. They are not much impressed with political elders who send established candidates their way – so they are in the process of rejecting Scozzafava and are souring on figures like Charlie Crist.

Next Tuesday, one populist-inspired candidate (Doug Hoffman) and one candidate who successfully tapped into populist fury over Washington power grabs and big spending (Bob McDonnell) may win, sending a message that it pays to run against Washington D.C. and to reject calls for conservatives to compromise with or resign themselves to Obamaism. (Chris Christie hasn’t gone that route, and indeed has tried to appropriate Obama’s hope-and-change theme as his own. He is now trailing.)

We will see next week who wins and by how much. But one lesson may be clear: Republican candidates will have to tap into the populist, anti-Washington fervor and take-no-prisoners attitude if they are going to unify their party, attract increasingly skeptical independents, and achieve their aims.



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