Mark Smith’s The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society is full of insight. He crushes the myth of Republican “bait-and-switch” – the idea that Republicans focus on the culture wars during elections to mask their unpalatable economic policies. Smith provides tons of straightforward data showing that Republicans heavily emphasize the economy during elections, do so far more than they used to, and have won more elections as a result of the change.

According to many scholars and journalists, American politics tilted right in recent decades because Republicans routinely downplayed the economy and instead focused their attention, particularly during elections, on social and cultural issues. On the contrary, this chapter has shown, economic issues were continually accentuated in campaign platforms, the state-of-the-state speeches of governors, and the rhetoric of the GOP’s presidential candidates… Rather than running away from the economy, the GOP made it a higher priority and linked more issues to it.

Before the ’70’s, Republican rhetoric focused on liberty, not economy – a point Smith drives home with a detailed comparison of the rhetoric of Goldwater versus Reagan. For example, on taxes and spending:

…Goldwater does not bother mentioning their economic effects until the closing sentences of the chapter. It is almost as if he is saying, “In case I haven’t convinced you with my primary arguments, let me add a subordinate one to the mix.”

In Reagan’s speeches, the effect of taxes and spending on the economy was never the secondary claim; instead, that effect continually stood at the forefront of his rhetoric.

I would add, however, that there is a plausible way to reformulate the “bait-and-switch” argument. Namely: Even though Republicans do spend a lot of time talking about economics, their specific economic policies usually are less popular than the Democrats specific economic policies. Raising taxes on the rich to spend more money on health care, education, and the environment is a popular ideas; so are crack-downs on gas “gouging” and Chinese imports. Republicans do not use the culture wars to hide their economic policies. Rather, they use popular economic generalities (like “we think people spend their own money better than the government does”) to hide unpopular economic specifics (like “we’re spending enough on health care, education, and the environment as it is”).