Fiscal Hawks No More: The GOP Shift To Common Good Conservatism Has Begun | Opinion

It was only a few years ago that the difference between the two major parties was summed up in two soundbites. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, claimed that Democrats were buying the votes of African-Americans with "free stuff" in the form of out-of-control spending on entitlement programs that increased the deficit and drowned the nation in debt. Democrats responded with a campaign ad depicting Romney's running mate and intellectual leader of congressional budget hawks, Paul Ryan, pushing a wheelchair-bound grandma off the cliff in a miserly attempt to steal her Medicare and Social Security payments.

But the days when the two parties' divide might be encapsulated by a reflexive Republican fiscal conservatism may be over. As freshman Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) tweeted in the wake of last November's election, the results illustrate the fact that if Republicans are to succeed in the future, it will be as "a working class party, not a Wall Street party."

He's not alone in seeing the Republican future as one in which it must switch from a default libertarian stand, opposed in principle to government spending, to a more open-handed populism. The GOP caucuses in both the House and the Senate still abound with fiscal hawks, to be sure. But there is growing support for the idea that the primary obligation of conservatives is to work for the common good. In supporting that vision, Hawley is following the lead of President Donald Trump, who appealed to the working class and spent freely during his four years in office. He is also appealing to the writings of right-wing intellectuals who believe the party must stand for more than just small government.

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has helped accelerate this shift. The plight of working-class Americans who have been impoverished by COVID lockdowns, while those with college educations smoothly transitioned to remote work without loss of income, has caused many Republicans to intuit that their old priorities are not only at odds with the needs of Americans neglected by Wall Street—they are also at odds with the interests of their party's very base. The debate about how generous COVID aid relief should be, or whether any such stimulus is necessary or right in the first instance, illustrates this new understanding. Trump and Hawley, in arguing for $2,000 stimulus checks, have no doubt appalled traditional fiscal hawks.

Old Republican habits—and rhetoric—may die hard. But with the educated classes now firmly in the pockets of the Democrats, the fate of the Republican Party is inextricably bound up with a duty to protect the values of ordinary Americans who believe the concrete needs of their families are more important than are abstract principles of limited government.

Liberal outlets like The New York Times are not wrong to predict that Republicans who went along with Trump's policies may rediscover fiscal hawkishness now that it can be used as a cudgel against the Biden administration. Nor was Trump the first Republican to eschew traditional concerns about spending: In 2003, President George W. Bush threw caution into the wind when he championed, and then signed into law, a vast expansion of Medicare that doled out prescription drug benefits to the elderly.

Many Republicans believe they were punished by voters for their profligacy when they lost control of Congress in 2006, though the disastrous war in Iraq and the perception that Bush had bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina may have had more to do with their defeat. What's more, the next GOP victories in the 2010 midterms were fueled by Tea Party activists who were mobilized to oppose President Barack Obama's stimulus spending and the Affordable Care Act.

Yet when Republicans had a chance to do away with Obamacare in 2017, they failed to do so because they couldn't agree on a replacement. That essentially vindicated those who had argued all along that once put in place, entitlements might be reformed—as was certainly necessary with Obama's health care fiasco—but not outright eliminated.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO)
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Despite the 2017 failure to repeal Obamacare, libertarian and fiscal hawk sentiments are still pervasive among elected Republicans. Those who were reluctant to open up the floodgates of federal spending in response to the pandemic weren't wrong to note that bailouts of local and state governments that had engaged in previous reckless spending were still inappropriate. There is also a strong prudential case that largely unaccountable government bureaucracies cannot be trusted to spend wisely.

But the debate about COVID relief has brought out the basic tension within the conservative movement between Republicans who are opposed to more government efforts to relieve suffering, and those on the Right who are advocating a more expansive and communitarian conception of conservatism.

The debate initiated by New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari, who opposed what he denounced as the arid and ineffectual libertarian approach of David French, speaks in part to this divide. Ahmari was primarily interested in mobilizing conservatives to action against the decline in public morality and sidelining of traditional family values. But his concerns were also related to the distaste of Never Trump erstwhile conservatives and other GOP establishment figures for the president's willingness to discard the idea that Republicans had no affirmative obligation to defend a society under siege from insidious transnational forces.

The notion that the only proper concern of Republicans is to defend the personal autonomy of Americans is one that was disputed by William F. Buckley, the seminal conservative of the post-World War II era. While Buckley strongly supported free markets and economic freedom, he decried libertarian absolutism. He recognized the need for the state to intervene to defend families, communitarian institutions and society in the name of the common good.

The argument for a Republican Party that is willing to use government power to help working-class Americans is not so much a matter of economic analysis as it is a moral one. When senators like Hawley and Marco Rubio (R-FL), who are firmly placed on the right of the GOP on most issues, join in support of Trump's belief in a more generous COVID relief package, they are accused by libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) of acting like Democrats and trying to buy votes with "free stuff."

But what they are calling for is not a new version of Democratic class warfare. Rather, it is an appeal to the duty of society to ensure that those in need are not victimized by economic forces that are primarily interested in expanding the profits of large institutions at the expense of the poor and the working class.

The lesson that Republicans should draw from the 2016 and 2020 elections is not just the fact that Trump's willingness to defend the interests of the working class on issues like trade and immigration brought into the GOP fold many former Democrats. It's that the divide in American society is not so much about esoteric Left-Right ideological debates as it is about concrete interests and values.

With so much of Wall Street and other elite economic sectors shifting toward Democrats due to cultural and economic issues, the assumption that Republicans are the party of the wealthy has been turned on its head. Under Trump, the GOP rightly re-focused its concerns on defending those whom the global economy treated as acceptable casualties of policies supported by the wealthy, irrespective of party affiliation.

While we can count on Republicans to pounce on instances of Biden administration profligacy, the assumption that fiscal hawkishness is the essence of conservatism is both morally dubious and an act of political malpractice. Whether the GOP opposition is led in the upcoming years by Trump or one of the party's next generation of conservative leaders like Hawley, its future lies in a populist program that will focus on protecting the working class and the values that reinforce the family—and not libertarian abstractions that would deny Americans the help they sometimes need.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org, a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.