Can Josh Hawley change the GOP?
They really hate it, don't they? I'm talking about the Senate Republicans who cannot believe that their colleague Josh Hawley would lay into a Michigan district court nominee who once compared Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage to the KKK, upsetting a cozy arrangement between the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee and the Wolverine State's two moderate-ish Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.
When Michael Bogren withdrew himself from consideration on Tuesday following Hawley's masterful (and occasionally hilarious) examination of his record as an attorney, Susan Collins of Maine said that she was "disturbed." "We need to be real careful going down this rabbit trail," said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, a freshman whose Democratic opponent in 2016 challenged him from the right on social issues. Texas's John Cornyn, the grand old man of civility in the Senate GOP caucus, was also upset about how things went down, but he conceded that pushing for Bogren's nomination after Hawley's questioning would have been an "unnecessary embarrassment."
Hawley is the junior senator from Missouri and, at age 39, the youngest member currently serving in the upper chamber. He is also far and away the most interesting Republican elected official in the United States. It's not just that Hawley won his seat last year by defeating Claire McCaskill, one of the wiliest old foxes in American politics, or that his commitment to what is ostensibly the conservative social agenda is notably sincere and unusually thorough. He has also emerged as one of the most resolute and incisive critics of America's most powerful corporations. "Is Republican senator Josh Hawley an advocate for video game players?" is not a question many would expect writers at sites like Kotaku to ask about social conservatives from Missouri, but this is what happens when you are the first politician in American history to question the wisdom of turning Xbox soccer into a casino open to 12-year-olds.
Hawley is not the first Senate Republican in recent years to question his party's libertarian economics. Florida's Marco Rubio has defended Hawley from attacks by the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board has gone after the newcomer three times in nearly as many months.
During the 2016 campaign Marco Rubio quietly endorsed doubling the child tax credit and making it fully refundable, a policy dismissed by many conservatives as "social engineering." Since then Rubio has taken to the pages of National Review to dismiss "elites" who have been "insulated from the disruptions created by globalization." He has abandoned libertarian rhetoric in favor of defining freedom in a more classical sense as the ability "to live a virtuous and meaningful life supported by family, community, faith, and the dignity of work." In 2017 he seemingly came very close to breaking with the GOP over the tax bill.
But perhaps an even better point of comparison for Hawley is Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who was once described by a member of his own staff as "a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate." Hawley is not a Catholic, though he is emerging as the Senate's most vocal and consistent champion of the liberty of the Church. But like Santorum, whose populist views on trade, immigration, and entitlements alienated him from his party during his tenure in the House and the Senate, Hawley has managed to sneak his way into the so-called "fourth quadrant" of American politics, the place where people have views that could be described as socially conservative and economically moderate to progressive.
This has long been the undiscovered country in American politics. It is also what a majority of us actually believe. Standing up for it will not necessarily make you a popular person in Washington, D.C. Santorum was widely disliked by his fellow senators, Republican and Democrat alike. This might have had a lot to do with his own cantankerous personality, but being on good terms with both parties when you don't fully agree with either is a tall order even for a gregarious politician like Lincoln Chafee, who also managed to alienate many colleagues on both sides of the aisle during his Senate career.
Which is why what makes the most sense for Hawley and politicians like him is bipartisanship — not in the Joe Lieberman sense of joining Democrats and Republicans in support of the handful of mostly idiotic ideas about which both sides agree, but rather selectively making alliances with either party depending upon the issue in question. Geography makes super-majorities in the Senate unlikely at any point in the foreseeable future. One or two votes matter. It is possible to imagine a world in which Hawley and Rubio side with Democrats on, say, restricting the amount of time toddlers spend in front of computer screens and with Republicans on legislation protecting the consciences of Catholic doctors and nurses.
Can one or two senators change the consensus in their parties? No. But they can successfully advance an agenda of their own by being tactically savvy while holding fast to their principles.