The Export-Import Bank Is Your New Populist Fig Leaf

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 9 2014 10:09 AM

The Export-Import Bank Is Your New Populist Fig Leaf

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Ed Gillespie, clever operative

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Longtime Republican operative Ed Gillespie is making a long bet that any Republican can win in 2014. The post-Bush Republican Party has largely rejected what Bush stood for, which is remembered (in shorthand) as spending on entitlement programs and immigration reform. Gillespie was the chairman of the RNC for part of Bush's first term and a counselor to the president for the last part of it. He does not make an obvious "libertarian populist," let's just say. So he's spent a strange amount of time ribbing Sen. Mark Warner for supporting a balanced-budget amendment in 1996 but not in 2014 (i.e., after two wars and the Bush tax cuts made it slightly harder to balance the budget). He has admitted that the Bush-era GOP "spent too much," generally speaking. And in this interview with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner,* he found a populist cause.

When asked to name three federal programs that he would like to see eliminated, however, the GOP Senate candidate would name only one, the Export-Import Bank, which is due to be reauthorized in September.
“One that I have said already that I believe should not be reauthorized and doesn't deserve to be continued in funding is the ExIm Bank,” Gillespie said, “but we'll roll out more details later as we go along.”
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That reveals what we knew already—Gillespie is savvy, and spotted an issue that was burbling up from the activist base and large conservative organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth. As luck would have it, the Bush-era reauthorization votes for Ex-Im came in 2002 and 2006, years when Gillespie was neither at the RNC nor the White House. He's got clean hands on this one! 

It's just funny that this issue, of all issues, is the one he's using for the populist merit badge. Sure, he can't name two more programs that could be cut tomorrow (Mark Warner's campaign called this a "Rick Perry moment"), but he can sure as hell name the one AFP is angry about. In the Hill, Kevin Cirilli and Vicki Needham talked to worried and anonymous strategists who swear that they've been building support for the bank. That doesn't hurt Gillespie at all. We're talking about a lifelong political strategist who (like Warner, like Gov. Terry McAuliffe) made his money by climbing the ladder in D.C., who will not lack the support of the Chamber of Commerce, picking up his pitchfork and sticking it in the bank that guarantees loans for foreign buyers of American products.

*The Examiner.com franchise is sort of like AOL's old Patch.com, paying people for local content, giving them media credentials in areas where local media is not thriving.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.