WASHINGTON — If you wanted vivid examples of the difference between the old guard, “compassionate conservative,” “morning in America” Republicanism of Reagan and the Bushes, against the new, raw Trump populism of we-vs.-them, May 15 was your day.
That morning, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley gave his traditional philosophy-defining “maiden speech” on the Senate floor. It was 14 minutes packed with words like “revolution” and “change” and “crisis.”
Coming 35 years after Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Hawley offered the familiar paeans to American past greatness with which Reagan painted a rosy picture of the future. But Hawley’s description of the current American condition was 180 degrees from Reagan’s — a dark warning, no sunrise celebration.
Hawley, the culture warrior, decried an “epidemic of loneliness and despair that is spreading across working communities,” and declared that “everywhere, deaths of despair are mounting — among farmers, among the young — most shockingly among the young.
“Today’s youth must make their way in a society increasingly not defined by the genuine and personal love of family and church, but by the cold and judgmental world of social media,” Hawley said, in a speech praised by other young conservatives, like Florida’s Marco Rubio.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who entered public life during the Reagan Revolution, welcomed Hawley with a short speech of his own. Then he headed to a hearing on election security.
There, he sat next to Senate Rules Committee colleague Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. They dug into the arcane, acronym-infused policy of election security, debating how best to go about ensuring that the cyber-attacks from Russia, China and other foreign hostiles doesn’t infect the 2020 election the way the Russians did in 2016.
Blunt, the consummate legislator and a lead cheerleader for GOP economic policies, has worked on many issues with Klobuchar, one of two dozen Democratic presidential candidates.
Just that day, the two announced they had introduced a bipartisan bill to ease burdens on child adoption. They have forged a quiet alliance through the wonkiest of Senate committees — Rules — where hearings are not likely to grab headlines, but where work that affects everything from, sexual harassment to the security of elections is hashed out, one incremental step at a time.
In short, while they have often clashed, Blunt and Klobuchar have strived for the very kind of bipartisanship that gets Republicans like Blunt labeled “RINOs” — Republicans in Name Only.
In Blunt and Hawley, Missouri has produced two personifications of the split in the Republican Party as it heads into a presidential election year behind a volcanic, constantly emoting and shifting Donald Trump, who often feuds as much with fellow Republicans as he does with the rest of the world.
Its more traditional wing, including Blunt, has made an uneasy peace with the president.
“You can get a whole lot more done if you minimize wasting time on things you can’t do anything about,” Blunt said to a question about Trump’s divisive rhetoric and style.
Many in the GOP’s more populist wing, including Hawley, have fallen in behind Trump and parroted his enemies list — the media, Democrats, Hollywood, illegal immigration — animating virtually every issue around that us-vs.-them axis. One of the first Republican senators Hawley sought out when he came to Washington was Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, who has built a reputation as a firebrand not much interested in bipartisan relationships.
“Big banks, big tech, big multi-national corporations, along with their allies in the academy and media — these are the aristocrats of our age,” Hawley said in his Senate speech. “They live in the United States, but they consider themselves citizens of the world. They operate businesses or run universities here, but their primary loyalty is to their own agenda for a more unified, progressive — and profitable — global order.”
For decades after Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, new Republicans aspired to be Reagan 2.0. This newest generation, Hawley included, is more inclined to see Reagan as more of an historical figure than an aspirational one.
“Conservatives have been enthralled with the 1980s for a long time, for obvious reasons,” Hawley said in an interview the day before his floor speech. “It was a decade of great success for conservative policies, a conservative president, and that is fine. But that was a long time ago.
“And I would say that my message to my fellow conservatives, my fellow Republicans is, it is 2019, and we need to wake up to the challenges of today.”
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, has watched Hawley adjust to the Senate.
Hawley’s message “is, ‘I want to get beyond the 1980s,’ but a lot of people will say that what he is saying reflects the Reagan years, if you will,” Tobias said, referring to calls for stronger families, smaller government and more individual freedom.
“It plays in Missouri, so he is not taking any chances, right?” Tobias said. “But if he wants to play on the national stage — on there, I don’t know how that works out.”
Dave Robertson, political science chair at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that “it’s great to ask where a changing world is taking American culture, what we are losing and gaining because of pressures on our culture, and what challenges these pressures pose for American democracy.”
He said that like other cultural conservatives, Hawley “is defining traditional values by their conventional opponents, like the media and the entertainment industry.
“But Hawley explicitly is trying to go farther — he’s trying to tailor cultural conservatism to rise of Tea Party and Trump conservatism,” Robertson continued.
Blunt, 69, is the quintessential Congress man. Presidential ambitions have never surrounded him. Because he is a member of Senate Republican leadership, reporters constantly seek him out in the halls of Congress on issues, policies and procedures, and he sometimes takes semi-secret back passages through the Capitol’s vast underground warrens to avoid them.
Hawley will be 45 in 2024. Win or lose next year, it will be the first year Republicans will choose post-Trump nominees for president, barring a major meltdown of the Trump presidency before the 2020 elections.
Hawley has had to parry claims he’s a young man in a hurry ever since he announced he was running for the Senate after winning the attorney general’s job with an ad showing a step ladder and mocking other politicians’ ambitions. He came into the Senate intent on making a national splash, attested to by the fact that the first big interview he gave about his maiden speech was to the Washington Post, not in-state media.
Ask him about 2024, and how the issues he has picked merge with ambition, and he parries this way:
“The kind of problems that we are talking about, the problems of wages, the problems of jobs, the problems of families, are not going to be solved in the next 2-3 years, or the next 10.
“It is a long-term project, and we need as many people engaged on that project on both sides of the aisle as we can get,” Hawley said. “My hope is to do my small part to do that.”