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Sen. Grassley: Smart Republican Populist?

David Callahan

Republican governor Bobby Jindal attracted attention earlier this year when he said that Republicans must stop being the "stupid party." But in that same speech Jindal said something equally important:

“We are a populist party and need to make that clear. . . . We are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes or big anything. We must not be the party that simply protects the well-off so they can keep their toys … We are the party whose ideas will help the middle class, and help more folks join the middle class.”

Of course, Jindal used the wrong word in this part of the speech. He said "are" when "should" would have been accurate. In fact, Republicans today are the party of big business -- the party that routinely operates in close concert with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and other organs of corporate America. 

Still, Jindal's speech raised fascinating questions about the GOP's ties to big business. The GOP didn't lose the 2012 election just because Latinos voted for Obama. A bigger reason was the success of the Obama camp -- which ran the most populist campaign in memory -- of casting Mitt Romney as the living embodiment of callous, out-of-touch corporate greed. That message resonated because today's Republicans are widely, and rightly, seen as doing the bidding of big business. And that's a major liability, especially as social wedge issues like gay marriage lose their potency and more white working class voters take a closer look at the Democrats again. 

In truth, there is no particular reason why the GOP - corporate nexus need be so strong. While most business and financial elites have been trained at elite universities and work in cosmpolitan coastal cities, the GOP has become the party of the South and Plains states in recent years. It's base is largely made up of less educated rural or small town whites and evangelical Christians. 

And, in some ways, the GOP is a "populist" party as Jindal said. For forty years, the conservative movement has been driven by a blinding rage at know-it-all elites, social engineers, and overreaching judges with degrees from Harvard and Yale. That rage has been adroitly coopted by corporate and wealthy interests with their own narrow agenda for rolling back regulation and taxes. But this partnership doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense. It's not clear that today's rank-and-file Republicans have much in common with the MBA types working at the highest levels of Fortune 1000 companies. On the flip side, you can see why many corporate and Wall Street leaders might look at today's GOP -- a party so obsessed with low taxes it was willing to blow up the economy during the debt ceiling debate -- and think they're a dangerous bunch. 

So it's not impossible to imagine today's GOP tacking away from its close alliance with corporate America. One person who could help the party do that in a smart way is Republican Senator Charles Grassley. In recent years, Grassley has led a one-made crusade against Big Pharma and its corrupting influence on the medical profession, investigating links between drugmakers and doctors. 

And just yesterday, Grassley took Attorney General Eric Holder to task for not bringing financial leaders to justice for their misdeeds:

In the case of bank prosecution. I'm concerned we have a mentality of 'too big to jail' in the financial sector, spreading from fraud cases to terrorist financing to money laundering cases. I would cite HSBC. . . . If you constitutionally can jail the CEO of a major institution, that is going to send a pretty wide signal to stop a lot of activity that people think they can get away with.

You don't hear that kind of language from Republicans every day. And I can't imagine most of the party's base voters wouldn't cheer such sentiments. Distrust of corporate America is strong among a large majority of Americans, regardless of party. 

Of course, Grassley takes any number of questionable positions, like most Republicans. But if Jindal is looking for like-minded GOP leaders unafraid to beat up now and then on corporate America, let's hope he's talking to Chuck Grassley.