The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans must stop Biden from stealing their populist thunder

President Biden delivers the State of the Union address at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
5 min

Beware, conservatives. President Biden is trying to steal your thunder when it comes to appealing to working-class Americans, as he showed in his State of the Union address this week.

If the GOP wants to win in future elections, it cannot let this happen. It must present its own viable blend of populism to counter Biden’s.

Biden’s brand of “America First” was evident throughout his speech. He highlighted his administration’s efforts to boost manufacturing in the United States and other issues important to U.S. workers, such as protecting government entitlement programs.

Conservatives should be responding with a united front. Instead, they are engaging in an increasingly acrimonious debate of economic policy. On one side there is the Old Guard: the free traders and neo-libertarians, allied with business interests, who largely don’t favor government economic intervention. On the other side are the Trumpists and populists who welcome the former president’s beliefs that pure free trade is outmoded; that immigration — especially illegal immigration — must be curbed; and that government intervention can help make the country more secure and its people more broadly prosperous.

The economic arguments in this debate are varied and complex. But the political arguments are simpler — and perhaps ultimately more important. It comes down to this: Does the Republican Party need to embrace some degree of economic nationalism and populism to secure its newfound base in working-class voters of all races and nationalities?

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The Old Guard’s answer tends to be no. These conservatives seem to believe that working-class voters are coming to the GOP for cultural reasons, such as its opposition to political correctness and “woke” ideology. They analogize the situation to the Reagan era, which many of them grew up in, when many of their blue-collar ancestors migrated to the Republican Party out of cultural concerns such as abortion. And the party’s white-collar voters, they argue, are moved by the GOP’s traditional views on economics.

Reformers see things differently. They note that Donald Trump’s signature issues in 2016 were economic ones such as trade and immigration. They also note that blue-collar voters have long been concerned that national policy favor foreigners over them. Trump’s political genius was simply that he recognized what more experienced hands refused to see: Blue-collar voters wanted growth and economic protections, and Republicans could provide that balance better than Democrats beholden to greens and progressives.

Those within the Old Guard often criticize the party’s populists as statists, protectionists or even closet socialists. Any interference with globalized trade and migration is anathema to these people. They also view any expansion of government programs with suspicion. This is why they tend to emphasize controlling spending on popular entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. They are more concerned about a program’s cost than its success.

But this way of thinking is politically weak, as Biden showed. He taunted GOP efforts to rein in spending on entitlements, which members of Team Red quickly tried to wave off as not representative of the party’s position. But the Heritage Foundation’s latest proposed budget argues for spending cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, as did the Republican Study Committee’s most recent alternative budget. Both conservative budgets also include changes to Social Security that would cut spending over time.

Biden played these proposals like a drum. By goading Republicans into denouncing them, he forced them to take any entitlement cuts off the table. This strategic retreat shows that even Old Guard bigwigs know that popular sentiment favors some form of economic populism.

The GOP’s challenge now is to marry those sentiments with its traditional support for markets, which requires doing something that few Republicans aside from Ronald Reagan have ever tried: making an affirmative case for government intervention.

Such an approach would emphasize two points: national security and the need to live a dignified life in modern America. These would form the basis for policy proposals that offer Americans a distinct vision from what Biden and the Democrats offer.

For example, conservative-populist synthesis could combine support for targeted interventions in sectors crucial to national security, such as semiconductors, with strong control of the border, which would help raise wages among unskilled and semiskilled workers. Americans and those legally able to work here would benefit from such interventions. Democrats cannot match that without taking on their powerful progressive faction, something even Biden is loath to do.

Working-class voters want a government that is strong and active enough to protect them from economic harms they cannot handle on their own. But they also want a government that will get out of their way to prosper and direct their own lives. They don’t want to be servants of bosses or bureaucrats; they just need help to become full, self-governing citizens.

Biden hopes the GOP is too blinded to see this. Republicans who want to take back their country should take note.