In 2022, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) had a good idea. The Senate Republican campaign chair believed his party’s chances of winning back control of Congress depended on it running on a platform in the spirit of the party’s 1994 “Contract With America,” which at the time showed the public what the GOP stood for. He believed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was wrong to think that the GOP could simply coast to victory because of the Biden administration’s myriad failures. As the disappointing election results later showed, perhaps more substance along the lines of much of Scott’s “Rescue America” plan would have helped some of the Republicans‘ weak candidates.
Still, McConnell was right about there being a problem with Scott’s scheme. Along with some items that showed that he had learned the importance of fighting culture war issues rather than shirking them, Scott also included a proposal for sunsetting all federal programs. Voters are indeed sick of the wasteful spending that has escalated under President Joe Biden. But McConnell understood that “all” federal programs necessarily includes Social Security and Medicare, and that cuts to entitlements represent a political land mine that Republicans should have learned to avoid long ago.
Scott has since conceded that both Social Security and Medicare must be walled off from any efforts to balance the federal budget and address accumulating debt. Yet despite the fact few in the GOP thought Scott’s original proposal was smart, his retreat came too late to prevent the idea from being used as a cudgel by opportunistic Democrats against Republicans—most prominently, by President Biden during his State of the Union address. Though rank-and-file conservatives vociferously protested that Biden was lying about their approach to entitlement spending, the fallout from Scott’s unforced error gave Biden an undeserved win.
This episode is instructive not so much because it demonstrates Scott’s flawed political judgment, but because it is emblematic of a sea change going in the Republican Party that many in Washington are still slow to acknowledge.
As much as Scott found himself isolated as a result of this dustup, much of the GOP’s Washington establishment, as well as some 2024 presidential hopefuls, are still very much in tune with the spirit of his proposal. Former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s Nikki Haley‘s recent presidential campaign rollout seemed to embrace the same agenda, as she called Social Security “the heart of what’s causing government to grow.” Former Vice President Mike Pence has also spoken of reviving the idea of allowing younger workers to invest some employment taxes not in the Social Security trust fund, but in private retirement accounts—one of the fiscal hawks’ favorite ideas from the George W. Bush era.
This is hardly surprising since it was only a little more than a decade ago that the entitlement reform championed by then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was mainstream GOP orthodoxy.
The future speaker of the House was correct about the budgetary math that pointed to the problems involved with ensuring young Americans eventually get the benefits they were promised by a government that couldn’t raise taxes fast enough to pay for all of it. But, like Scott, Ryan’s insistence that everything had to be on the table when it came to cuts was political poison then, just as it is now.
Defending free market capitalism against the ravages of socialism is an inherently conservative cause. Yet Ryan and other conservatives who have been laser-focused on the causes of smaller government and lowering taxes have missed something even more important. Letting themselves be guided solely by the interests of Wall Street and the ideas of fiscal hawkishness came naturally to many Republicans, but it also demonstrated an abandonment of the working-class voters who looked to conservatives for more than mere tax cuts and bashing of “big government.”
This was something former President Donald Trump intuitively understood. The success of his 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated that everything in the 2013 Republican National Committee postmortem about the party’s presidential 2012 failure—in which Ryan had a prominent role, as the party’s vice presidential candidate–was mistaken. Trump’s substantive appeal involved not only taking a stronger stand on immigration and away from the impulse toward foreign adventures in the putative name of democracy, but also an abandonment of Ryan’s crusade for entitlement reform.
Moreover, as we head toward 2024, any analysis of a Republican shift away from the obsession with the budget and spending has to be seen in the context of a growing debate about the need for a common good conservatism that marks a stark departure from Ryan’s more libertarian-inspired vision.
Most Republicans are not ready to reject a vision of conservatism that isn’t fundamentally rooted in a belief in the centrality of individual liberty as the core animating principle around which everything else in politics revolves. But they have also awoken to the understanding that caring for the common good, and especially those citizens who are not a part of the ruling class, is a paramount obligation.
Defending the cultural, moral, and religious values of those citizens against the woke revolution seeking to wage war on Western civilization must not merely take rhetorical precedence over the traditional supply-side agenda of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. That defense must also involve backing for government policies that support the creation and preservation of stable families, and ensure that a dependable safety net exists to help those in need.
Taking such a stand need not include a disavowal of the importance of individual liberty. Nor is a common good approach to politics synonymous with socialism, as some latter-day Ryan acolytes and Bush-era conservatives continue to insist.
While interest in the 2024 GOP presidential primary seems to rest primarily on personalities and the question of Trump versus the field, voters’ real test next year will be their willingness to understand that the Republican Party of George W. Bush and Paul Ryan is dead. In its place is a party that has not only largely learned its lesson about the perils of running, as Ryan was falsely depicted by Democrats, on a platform of pushing grandma off the cliff in her wheelchair. The new Republican Party is also one that is less interested in helping Wall Street firms—which have largely abandoned the GOP for their left-wing rivals—than it is in serving the needs of ordinary voters. That necessarily means an approach to government that, while committed to the defense of traditional values and religious and political liberty, is also focused on their welfare.
The end of the GOP’s obsession with entitlements is a signal not only of the conservative grassroots’ ability to grasp what is politically smart, but also of its rejection of a uniparty mentality that is still contagious in Washington. Republicans will never support the kind of mindless spending binges that Democrats routinely propose. But a sensible common good conservatism will help the GOP shuck its past of caring more about tax cuts than the nation’s ordinary voters.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.org and a senior contributor to The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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