Joining socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’s call for cash payments to people as part of coronavirus relief is unusual for a conservative, but Sen. Josh Hawley is not the typical Republican many expected when he arrived in Washington.
Lurking beneath the elite pedigree — Stanford University, Yale Law School, clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — is a conservative populist. It is a surprise to Republicans who thought the Senate was gaining a movement conservative when Hawley was elected from Missouri in 2018. But party insiders familiar with Hawley’s career insist populism has been a staple of his portfolio going back a decade, when the notion of a President Trump was laughable.
“He really is a populist at heart,” said Gregg Keller, a Republican operative in Missouri who advised Hawley’s Senate campaign.
With bipartisan negotiators working furiously to reach agreement on coronavirus relief before year’s end, Sanders and Hawley announced separately opposition to any package that does not include $1,200 in direct payments to people in financial straights because of the pandemic. But their messages were similar: Addressing economic hardship by spending taxpayer dollars to rescue struggling businesses, so that employers can hire and retain workers, is insufficient and immoral.
It was exactly what you would expect from Sanders. As a two-time presidential candidate, the Vermont independent enjoyed the adulation of liberal activists as he pushed the Democratic Party to embrace socialist policies. But it was unusual coming from a Republican. Indeed, most Senate Republicans oppose this policy. Hawley went so far as to encourage Trump to veto any bill that does not earmark cash for those struggling.
“Why would Congress bail out Big Government; why would we shovel billions of dollars to corporations and government and not help individuals?” Hawley said in comments shared with KY3, a television station in Springfield, Missouri. “It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. These are the people who are most in need, and I told [Republicans], I just can’t support any bill that does not include direct relief, direct assistance to working families.”
Hawley has proposed a larger role for Washington in governing the economy and the states. The senator has introduced legislation to stiffen regulations on the technology industry; international trade; and the administration of elections in the states. Additionally, Hawley supports a lighter footprint for the United States military overseas, endorsing Trump’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan despite failing to achieve victory over the Jihadist terrorists there.
This sort of populism, a philosophy that champions a more activist federal government at home and dovish foreign policy abroad, has left some Republicans scratching their heads.
When the young, telegenic Missouri attorney general was recruited to run for Senate in 2017, some Republicans were convinced that he was a Ronald Reagan-era conservative — a libertarian’s preference for reducing the size and scope of government and internationalist in foreign affairs. They have watched this rising GOP populist suspiciously, viewing it as a timely response to the influence Trump has had on the party.
“He wasn’t a populist. He was a conservative intellectual,” a Republican operative said, warning, “the greatest challenge for young political stars is to resist the temptation to retrofit their views to the politics of the moment and exercise the patience to wait for the moment to fit their authentic self.”
Hawley’s supporters disagree, emphasizing that despite the strong backing of the Republican establishment in his Senate campaign, his roots have always been populist — ideologically and intellectually. That includes launching a state investigation of Google’s competitive practices during his first year as Missouri attorney general and writing a book about the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, published in 2008.
In a statement emailed to the Washington Examiner, Hawley spokesman Kelli Ford defended the senator’s legislative agenda, throwing shade at Democrats and Republicans in the process.
“Since the 1990’s, leaders in both parties have sold out America’s heartland to Wall Street and Silicon Valley globalists, and their never-ending quest for cheaper labor and bigger profits,” Ford said. “That’s got to stop. Josh won’t quit and he won’t apologize for fighting for the families Washington likes to forget.”
There is a long tradition of conservative populists within the Republican Party, but they were historically a junior partner in its governing coalition. That changed with Trump’s nomination in 2016. Republicans in Washington are still predominantly Reagan conservatives who are foreign policy hawks and fiscally prudent. But Trump’s presidency, and popularity with the party’s grassroots, has given rise to the populists. Or, at least, it has elevated populist policies.
Among others, leaders on this front in the Senate include Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Both are potential 2024 presidential candidates. However, some conservative populists view Cotton and Rubio as “reformicons” — Republicans who want to appeal to populist voters by developing reforms grounded in traditional conservative policies. Then, there is Hawley.
His populist legislative proposals, many focused on cultural issues, are filling a void left by Trump, whose populism is often more attitudinal than substantive. The senator’s approach has sparked interest in him as a 2024 contender among some Republicans, in both establishment and populist wings of the GOP, who are searching for a Trump heir who can bridge both the intraparty divide.
With young children at home, Hawley, 40, is unlikely to mount a presidential campaign, although he would instantly make the shortlist for vice presidential running mate. Meanwhile, he is continuing to receive rave reviews from conservatives who believe the Republican Party needs to modernize its agenda and move away from the Reagan-era conservatism that, necessary then, is out of step with where the country, and the party’s base, is today.
“What I find so encouraging in Sen. Hawley’s work is his willingness to apply conservative principles to modern challenges, rather than simply recycling the policy agenda developed when applying those principles to the challenges of 40 years ago,” said Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass, a reformist think tank. “The COVID relief debates are a perfect example of this.”