In part one of this two-part series I wrote about the shifting political sands for fiscal conservatives in the Trump era and beyond. That column raised the question: What would a realistic path forward for those who advocate for small government look like?
For a long time prior to 2016, economic arguments dominated most campaigns, with Republicans mostly arguing for free markets and Democrats touting some degree of government intervention. Political elites had forged an uneasy consensus on social issues by relegating them to the margin of polite society. Appeals to “traditional values” on the right were juxtaposed with appeals to social libertarianism, in practice if not in words, on the left. In this environment, political competition was mainly along a hybrid plane that encapsulated mostly fiscal issues with a sprinkling of cultural grievance.
Donald Trump flipped that paradigm on its head. Not particularly interested in fiscal conservatism but very interested in cultural populism—opposition to immigration, the elites, and left-wing cultural institutions—he appealed to voters who shared his social sentiments but had traditionally voted Democrat (or not voted at all) because they believed in a larger role for the government economically. Democrats, meanwhile, maintained their same basic playbook. While Hillary Clinton arguably tended towards cultural issues in 2016 (e.g., “love Trumps hate”) and Joe Biden focused more explicitly on economic arguments in 2020 (e.g., “build back better”), both maintained a basic belief in the government’s capacity to help create a more just society.
Left out of this new paradigm are fiscal conservatives. Predicting their future is fraught with peril, as predictions always are. But it seems fairly clear that the narratives that underpinned their last great ascendance are dead.
After four years of Trump’s relative profligacy, alarm about debt and deficits or warnings about creeping big government do not seem likely to resonate on a national scale any time soon. The seamless pivot of the House Freedom Caucus holding the line on federal spending to being Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in his foibles to “own the libs” illustrates that much of the Tea Party’s opposition to big government was, in large part, animated by an opposition to “them” (i.e. big government and elites infringing on their freedoms) rather than any philosophical attachment to fiscal conservatism. In that regard, Trump showed they can have their cake and eat it too. Fighting the culture war does not necessarily require holding the line on federal spending, it just means spending it on different stuff—or spending it on the same stuff but with different messaging attached. With that cat out of the bag, it is hard to see how Republicans go back to concern about the debt as an organizing principle.
After four years of Trump’s relative profligacy, alarm about debt and deficits or warnings about creeping big government do not seem likely to resonate on a national scale any time soon.
A recent poll of Republicans found that 51 percent would prefer their next presidential candidate to be a “Trump Republican” as compared to 37 percent for a “Reagan Republican” and 12 percent for a “Bush Republican.”
The Republican pollster Henry Olsen has argued that any conservative-populist alliance with a chance of winning national elections must “double down” on appeals to working class voters. In his view, that means finding a Reagan-esque “third way between the libertarianism of Barry Goldwater and the soft socialism of the Great Society.”
Olsen was short on policy specifics except to say that it can’t be merely about rhetorical appeals to the populists coupled with the policy preferences of the fiscal conservatives. It would seem that issues that have united fiscal conservatives and social conservatives in the past—like the Supreme Court—have declined in salience now that conservatives have a 6-3 majority of justices, so finding new issues that unite these coalitions may be challenging.
Perhaps the only possibility for conservatives is to carve out some room in the center that acknowledges some people do need a hand from the government but that some of the broad-based entitlements in the American Rescue Plan might go too far.
This approach’s viability though would hinge on the cultural dimension. In a sense, it would be Bill Clinton-style triangulation, except it would occur along the spectrum of social issues rather than economic issues.
It would acknowledge that neither anti-immigration populism on one side nor, for lack of a better term, woke leftism on the other, is particularly popular with the large swath of American voters, who are somewhere in the middle. If Democrats drift too far to the left with calls to, for example, defund the police, decriminalize illegal border crossings, and de-Lincolnize the names of public schools, that could create an opening for some sort of center-right movement, with a particular emphasis on calls for social cohesion. Given the present electoral dynamics and the still looming specter of Trump, it is difficult to see how that would happen in the current Republican Party at the national level, though.
Ultimately, the best plan in the short term for fiscal conservatives is probably to compete in states where voters tend to value competent governance, run strong candidates there, win power, and govern responsibly. This approach would acknowledge that this is just not a moment for fiscal conservatism at the federal level. It would redirect energy to states—where (at least the appearance of) balanced budgets are usually required—and try to use the windfall from the American Rescue Plan to set up long-term fiscal stability, showing that fiscal conservatives are the ones who can be trusted to act responsibly rather than chase short-term extravagances. In a sense, this is the “Republican blue state governor” approach of Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker.
Ultimately, the best plan in the short term for fiscal conservatives is probably to compete in states where voters tend to value competent governance, run strong candidates there, win power, and govern responsibly.
Between the ascendance of an affinity for borrowing and the massive expansion of the deficit that came from the Republican tax plan, preaching spending cuts in Washington is just not going to draw many people to the pews in the short term.
If there is a virtue of a classic conception of conservatism, though, it is patience. Being responsible at the state and community level, being decent people in the public sphere who care about their neighbors especially through civil society (especially through religious organizations), and being ready—in terms of governing capacity and message—when there is an opening does not seem too far fetched a plan.
A team of British political scientists led by the head of Britain’s premier post-election poll Edward Fieldhouse recently published a book about what they call “electoral shocks.” They argue that the field of play that is politics can be reshuffled at a moment’s notice by unforeseen events that represent a sharp change to the status quo, are highly salient and noticeable over long time periods, and are relevant to how people perceive political parties. Crucially, these events are often triggered by factors outside of politicians’ direct control (think of 9/11).
If fiscal conservatives believe in the power of their ideas to promote sound governance and, ultimately, human flourishing, the opportunity to make that case should come at some point. The problem, in the short term, is that their last chance to make that case was upended, co-opted, and tarnished from within their own party, and credibility is a hard thing to rebuild in politics.
That is the tacit concession retiring fiscal conservatives like Pat Toomey and Rob Portman seem to be making.
Benjamin Pontz is a Lancaster native researching governance and public policy on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Manchester.