Thursday, April 29, 2021 | 2 a.m.
A few months ago, it was an open question whether once Donald Trump vacated the presidency, the idea of a more populist right-wing economic policy would disappear with him.
Trump was a lazy, inconsistent populist, but he still tethered his party to the idea that Republicans should stand for some sort of “working class” politics, some kind of policy that prized American wage earners as well as corporations and the rich. But under his Democratic successor, it was possible to imagine populism going the way of compassionate conservatism in the Tea Party era, as the GOP just cycled back to complaining about deficits.
Some Republicans have made that journey. But a few months into Joe Biden’s presidency, we can also say that the populist impulse remains alive, and the GOP’s Trump -era repositioning with it.
You can see this in two ways. First, Republican Senate moderates keep making counteroffers to the Biden administration’s big-ticket spending proposals: $618 billion for COVID-19 relief in February, $568 billion for infrastructure last week. Compared with the ambition of the Democratic plans, these seem like very modest offers. Compared with the line that Republicans took for most of the Obama presidency, though, they represent a dramatic shift, with a combined price tag far beyond Obama’s $787 billion in stimulus spending, which Republicans back then denounced as profligacy or socialism.
Meanwhile, individual Republican senators keep trying to position themselves as champions of working families, critics of corporate America or both. Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Utah have proposed a plan to raise the minimum wage while cracking down on businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. Romney has proposed a sweeping new child benefit; on Monday, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri offered his own family tax credit. Hawley has been pushing antitrust proposals aimed especially at Silicon Valley, while Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida backed the union organizing drive at an Amazon plant in Alabama and keeps issuing warnings to liberal-leaning corporations that they’re in danger of losing GOP support.
Of course, many Republican counterproposals to Biden policies are just vehicles for “See, we have a plan, too” rhetoric, not live legislative options. Beyond vague support for one failed organizing drive, it’s unclear exactly what the substance of Rubio’s anti-corporate turn might be. And anything populist-sounding that emanates from the office of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas can be presumed to be empty theatrics.
But let’s take the non-Cruz senators at their word for a moment and assume there is a sincere desire among a subset of Republican politicians to offer populist-flavored economic proposals. What would it take for this desire to crystallize into a coherent and influential agenda or to really reshape the right-wing policy debate?
One plausible answer is that the populists need something more than individual proposals and ad hoc partnerships: They need to present themselves as a faction, a small alliance within the larger GOP, a caucus with a collective identity for the purposes of proposing policies and negotiating deals. You could even call it the Common Good Caucus, using a phrase much in vogue among younger right-wing intellectuals.
Such groups are rarer than they used to be, to our politics’ detriment. As Yuval Levin pointed out in a recent essay for National Review, it used to be normal for the two parties to have factions, like the Mugwumps or the New Democrats, with an identity distinct from the larger party brand. These groups saw themselves as engaged in both policy innovation and policy negotiation — with the other coalition, sometimes, but first and foremost with their own.
Nowadays the closest thing to a traditional faction is the assertive progressivism organized around Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., whose success at influencing the Biden administration seems like something other legislators should want to emulate. But instead, Levin observed, when a group seems like it could become a strong internal faction — moderate Democrats, libertarian Republicans, the would-be populists I’m writing about here — it feels “compelled to claim the mantle of its entire party, and to try to own the conflict with the other party, rather than to see its own party as the scene of a negotiation among the members of a coalition.”
Thinking in the latter way, as a faction trying to reshape the GOP, would give a potential Common Good Caucus several advantages. The first would be simple policy leverage. Democrats will not be passing legislation by 51-50 Senate votes permanently, and either in a world where the Biden White House is negotiating with Republicans on budgeting or in a future with a Republican in the White House trying to whip votes for a GOP agenda, the ability of a caucus to say, “Here are our votes, here are our demands,” offers a shaping influence that individual senators can’t match.
The second advantage would be branding, identification and recruitment. Republicans running for the Senate (or the House, for that matter) could find in the Common Good Caucus a distinct identity in a primary campaign, a ready-made agenda to run on in the general election and a built-in set of allies waiting in Washington if they win. In a legislative environment where many congresspeople seem to feel impotent and bored, a factional identity promises more interest, influence and agency — especially for politicians who prefer the hope of actually legislating to the chance of becoming the next Matt Gaetz or Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The third advantage would be the chance to make existing populist policy proposals better, more politically marketable or both. Now, for instance, the right has three competing family policy ideas: the Romney plan, the new Hawley option and the older proposal from Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. Their differences have spurred a waspish argument among conservative wonks over work and welfare — whether family tax breaks or child allowances should be extended to parents, mothers especially, who don’t also hold down jobs.
It’s an important debate, but it’s a little strange to make it central as long as most Republican senators don’t officially support any family policy at all. And if, say, Romney, Rubio and Hawley and a few others were all part of a formal caucus, with an incentive to negotiate internally and then present a shared idea, it seems easy to imagine how a balance might be struck. It’s reasonable for conservatives to worry about single-parent families being permanently disconnected from the workforce. But it’s also reasonable to think that in the crucial, vulnerable period of maternal transformation — something on my mind these days because it’s the subject of my wife’s new book — we shouldn’t be forcing women back to work. So why not have a Romney-style child benefit that’s available strings-free only until a child turns 2 and that comes with work requirements thereafter?
That’s one harmonization; presumably there are others. The point is that with a collective policy proposal, rather than a scattering of lone-senator ideas, you’re more likely to pull other senators in your direction — and eventually, maybe, your party as a whole.
Of course, that word “collective” also tells you why the faction I’m imagining might never actually take shape: Because senators who want to be president, as clearly Rubio, Hawley and Cotton (among many others) do, wouldn’t want to subordinate themselves to a project that might limit their own forays, their spotlight-seizing, their own individuated ideas.
And in this case, the Republican senator interested in these ideas who probably won’t run for president again, Romney, has the deadly taint of Never Trump. So his more ambitious colleagues are unlikely to want to fully join a club with him, let alone have him as its elder statesman.
All of these unfortunate incentives are part of the grim cycle of Senate gridlock and decline. As it becomes a less interesting place to legislate, its members set their eyes more and more on the White House, and as they become more obsessed with their imagined primary prospects, their incentives get stronger not to organize in factions when they can grandstand as a brand of one.
Which is the other reason it would be appropriate for my imagined faction’s title to invoke the common good: Simply by existing, they would be doing a service not just to their own ideas but to the competence of Congress and the health of the republic as a whole.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.