How the GOP Can Reverse the Progressive Advance

It’s time the party returns to its foundational principles.

The first two months of the Biden administration have taught Republicans a painful lesson: Yes, elections have consequences, but elections that are not conceded have even worse consequences. Former President Trump’s insistence that he “won in a landslide” cost the Republicans control of the Senate,  derailed a necessary post-mortem discussion about how the party can do better (after losing the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections), and has crippled the party’s ability to combat an increasingly radical progressive agenda. Rather than owning the libs, the GOP is getting owned. 

In short order, the Biden administration pushed through a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package—a Keynesian spending orgy more than twice the size of Obama’s stimulus—that used the COVID emergency to advance an ambitious progressive wish list. The package expanded Obamacare, laid the groundwork for universal income and day care, and included a brazen federal power grab that prevents states from lowering taxes by mandating that states who do cut taxes cannot receive aid. 

That was just the first act in an administration that wants to be as ambitious as FDR’s. As Biden described in his first press conference, Democrats are now gearing up to push a massive infrastructure package, followed by a sweeping domestic proposal focused on universal pre-K and free college. Together, they would cost about $3 trillion. Rather than paying for this by reducing government waste and cutting lower-priority spending, Biden wants to raise taxes for individuals and businesses. Democrats are aiming not just to transform our physical infrastructure (i.e., roads and bridges) but our nation’s social and political infrastructure. Their aim is liberal supremacy across the board—in culture, politics and economics. 

The only thing more alarming than the size and scope of these proposals is the degree to which Republicans are sleeping through them. While a few Republicans such as Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey deftly documented the excess of the Biden stimulus, the clearest response was a secret vote in the Republican conference to bring back earmarks. So much for contrast. 

The way forward for conservatives is to go back to first principles. Reacquainting ourselves with our foundational doctrines beginning with limited government and our founders’ revolutionary conception of rights and equality would go a long way toward thwarting a progressive movement that is untethered from reality and politically overconfident. 

The Republican Party’s limited-government muscles atrophied during the Trump era but can be rehabilitated fairly quickly. Focusing on limited government requires a commitment to fiscal conservatism, but fiscal conservatism, properly practiced, is much more than a myopic “green eyeshade” focus on mere numbers. Fiscal conservatism isn’t just a branch of conservatism but its root system. Our founders were preoccupied not just with the balance of power between branches of government but between the people and their government. More government meant less freedom, and you can’t expand government without funds.

Republicans used those limited-government muscles very well in two fairly recent fights. The first was the struggle to enact an earmark ban that forward-thinking senators like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman want to keep in place. When I was a staffer for the late U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, we lost the Bridge to Nowhere vote by a margin on 82-15. But that iconic example of waste continues to be a part of the national conversation 15 years later, because we connected it to larger themes. It wasn’t about money. It was about freedom and even justice. That amendment and many others that Coburn offered were designed to create permanent reasonable doubt about government’s ability to set priorities and solve problems. Our message to voters still rings true: If you love freedom, justice, equality, and prosperity, then choose less government, not more. 

The second example was the party’s response to the Obama stimulus. By November 2010, voters were not only displeased about Obamacare taking away their doctors and insurance plans but were exposed to the Republican Party’s principled, disciplined, and entertaining critique of the Recovery Act. Coburn teamed up with U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) on a series of oversight reports on Recovery Act that were widely covered by the media.  Silly and low-multiplier effect stimulus projects (cocaine for monkeys, sidewalks to nowhere, and so on) sowed reasonable doubt about government’s competence among centrist audiences. 

This strategy worked because Republicans were willing to do the hard work of documenting waste and presenting it in an honest and clear narrative that connected with voters.

 It’s time for Republicans to get back to work. Republicans would do themselves a favor by spending as much time in the oversight gym as TV green rooms. We need new icons, but the spirit of the message should be the same: Can you trust a government that wants to build Bridges to Nowhere to take over health care and day care? If Republicans take the time to look and communicate, examples of failed progressive government and counterfeit compassion aren’t hard to find. 

On climate, for instance, Republicans have easy openings. The Green New Deal is an unworkably heavy-handed, top-down, “more government” proposal that won’t work. For starters, “the science” tells us carbon dioxide doesn’t respect borders. Ending all emissions in the U.S. would do almost nothing to lower global temperatures as long as China is building new coal plants. The answer is more innovation, less government and trusting markets over mandates. 

The second challenge for Republicans is to counter Democrats’ racial justice arguments with sound—and constitutional—arguments about human dignity and equality. On immigration, for example, Republicans feel like they’ve struck political gold with “Biden’s border crisis,” but it will pay off with non-base voters only if Republicans transcend Trump’s nationalistic framing of the problem. Trump was right that you can’t have a country without borders. But it is equally true that you can’t have America without its beliefs. We aren’t a mere country. We are an idea. The only way to defeat the left’s obsession with critical race theory and identity politics is by reasserting the radical American idea that our rights come not from the state but natural law or nature’s God. 

If Republicans go into 2022 focusing on first principles, they’ll have a much easier time countering the progressive advance in every area ranging from climate to taxes. What Republicans can’t afford are more unforced errors like holding secret votes to bring back earmarks (thankfully that ban is still technically in place in the Senate). Historical trends suggest the GOP has an excellent chance of retaking the House in 2022. Since 1982, the president’s party has lost an average of 30 House seats during a new president’s first midterm election. The lone exception was 2002, when Republicans gained eight seats in the wake of 9/11. In 2022, Republicans need only to flip five seats to take the House. As The Dispatch noted, Republicans could get there through new maps and redistricting alone.  

The big unknown is whether Donald Trump will further undermine Republicans hopes in 2022 by pushing vengeance primaries against Republicans he views as insufficiently pure (i.e. disloyal to him). The media would love nothing more than to cover rage primaries rather than policy arguments that make Democrats look foolish and out of touch. Fortunately, 76 percent of Republicans (and 94 percent of college-educated Republicans) oppose retaliation primaries. Let’s hope Trump decides to be loyal to his own base. 

The defining question in the post-Trump era is not whether we are tired of winning, but whether we are tired of losing, and what we can do to start winning again. Returning to first principles—and remembering how those principles were successfully applied in recent fights—is a good place to start. 

John Hart is the co-founder of the Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions and served as Tom Coburn’s longtime communications director and co-author.