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Opinion Republicans would be wise to follow Tom Cotton’s vision for the future

Sen Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Capitol Hill in February 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
4 min

Tom Cotton staked a claim to the Reaganite lane of the 2024 presidential race on Monday night, only it’s not the lane you might think.

In a speech delivered at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on the future of the Republican Party, the Arkansas senator laid out a vision that — much like Reagan’s — places human dignity and a strong American nation firmly ahead of free-market fundamentalism. And, yes, I mean much like Reagan’s — as an accurate review of the 40th president’s record makes clear.

More Republicans should follow Cotton’s lead.

Cotton, a possible 2024 presidential contender, began by noting that three consequential Republican presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump — all placed portraits of Andrew Jackson in the White House. That might seem odd, because Jackson founded the Democratic Party. But not when one realizes that Jackson’s robust sense of national unity and defense of the common man were the essence of the world views of all three Republicans. Cotton argued that as Democrats have all-but-canceled Jackson from their history, “the Republican Party has assumed the mantle of this proud, patriotic and populist tradition.”

Such a reordering must necessarily have consequences for party policy, and Cotton offered several possibilities for that, even as he endorsed Republican orthodoxy in other respects.

Reminding conservatives that “government is not the only threat to liberty,” Cotton called for regulating Big Tech and social media companies that deplatform people for expressing their views, a position sure to earn the ire of the party’s libertarian wing. He went further in his economic policy — “we are a nation with an economy, not an economy with a nation,” he said — arguing that the needs of the nation and the individual should take precedence over ideological calls for “open borders, unfettered trade and globalization.”

So on immigration, Cotton said, that means replacing a system that prioritizes extended family ties with one that promotes immigration from the highly skilled, as well as instituting mandatory use of the E-Verify program, which forces employers to hire only those legally able to work in this country. Republican business interests have long resisted E-Verify; Cotton challenged them to instead “invest more in American workers, pay them more and treat them better.”

On trade, Cotton said, it means decoupling the U.S. economy from China’s and ending China’s most-favored-nation trade status. He further argued that the government should ban U.S. investment in “strategic Chinese industries” and “encourage reshoring of U.S. factories and jobs.” Taken seriously that would entail a degree of subsidy, taxation and tariffs that Republicans have eschewed for generations.

And on entitlements, Cotton called on Republicans to defend Medicare and Social Security. “American workers deserve a secure retirement after a lifetime of working hard and paying taxes,” he told the conservative audience. Under this principle, there’s likely still ground to reduce spending, but Cotton’s reframing puts a greater emphasis on protecting individuals than recent GOP orthodoxy.

Some might think such views are contrary to Reagan’s, but really they’re not. Reagan raised taxes rather than cut Social Security benefits in 1983, and he often spoke of the need for a social safety net to protect the truly needy. Yes, he was a free trader, but he was also a fair trader, and he acted to impose quotas or otherwise protect American industry facing unfair foreign competition. In his autobiography, “An American Life,” Reagan said that he had always been most bothered by the usurpation of a person’s “democratic rights,” whether by government or an employer. No true market fundamentalist could ever envision an employer taking away someone’s rights, but Reagan could.

Reagan’s grave sits just a few hundred feet from where Cotton spoke on Monday night. His epitaph neatly encapsulates his vision: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.” The vision Cotton articulated Monday night is a worthy interpretation and extension of those words into our current moment. The party would be wise to take heed.