Texas Sen. Ted Cruz might get more bad press. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton may do more to spark progressive conflagrations at elite media outlets. But no Republican in the upper chamber of Congress says "no" quite like the junior senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley.
I'm talking first and foremost about Hawley's impressive record of voting so far against the confirmation of every one of President Biden's Senate-confirmable nominees to staff the upper levels of his administration, most of them for Cabinet posts. Sens. Cotton, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, and Roger Marshall of Kansas have opposed seven of Biden's nominees. Florida Sen. Rick Scott has opposed eight. Cruz has voted against nine. But only Hawley can say that he is consistently treating Donald Trump as the true winner of the 2020 election and Biden as an illegitimate usurper by rejecting all 10 of the nominees who have received a vote.
Now, with more than a dozen confirmation votes to go, it's possible that Hawley's intransigence will waver. Several Democratic senators with presidential aspirations voted against the lion's share of Trump's nominees four years ago. But in the end, all of them relented on at least two. Will Hawley hold the line, proving that he truly deserves the title of America's Senator No?
I, for one, have faith in Hawley.
Given that Democrats control the Senate and should be able to muster the votes to confirm most of Biden's nominees without any Republican support, it's not like Hawley's intransigence will have any concrete impact on governance. The Biden administration will get to staff up, and Hawley will get to avoid having to render and justify specific judgments about specific nominees. He can instead stand in blanket opposition and thereby claim the mantle of Republican Senator Most Opposed to Biden at zero cost or consequence. It almost makes you wonder why any Republican senator votes in favor of any Democratic nominee at all.
To put it somewhat differently: Hawley is practicing a symbolic form of politics. In that respect, he truly is following in Trump's footsteps, setting himself up to be the 45th president's most authentic successor.
That's not to say Trump's presidency was purely symbolic. Because presidential administrations have enormous reach and power through the many arms of the executive branch, the Trump administration did all kinds of things during the four years it was in power. But Trump himself had little to do with any of it, since he devoted the bulk of his time and energies to "owning the libs" in tweets and other public statements that were designed to provoke constant, maximal outrage and fury among his partisan opponents. That was the politics of symbolism at its purest.
Hawley's brand of symbolic politics takes a somewhat different form — mostly, I'd suspect, because as a Republican aiming to get himself anointed as his party's presidential nominee in 2024, his primary focus is persuading GOP voters to favor him over his many rivals.
But how to do that? Back in the summer of 2019, when he was still finding his footing after winning his senate seat the previous fall, Hawley delivered a speech at the National Conservatism conference that I found interesting and noteworthy. In it, the recently elected senator from Missouri made a rhetorically powerful case for transforming the Republican Party into a working-class party that would defend the interests of ordinary Americans against a class of aristocratic overlords whose interests are aligned with elites around the world.
The analysis was crude and deployed rhetorical tropes with unsavory historical antecedents. But it was also vague. Listening to the speech, it was impossible to know what such a working-class ideology would look like if Republican politicians sought to govern in its name.
More than a year and a half further into Hawley's first term in office, we have somewhat more information to go on, and the picture is muddled. What, according to Hawley, would a more authentically populist Republican Party say and do?
It would hold grandstanding hearings and publish a book with an incendiary title about the supposed moral depredations and tyrannical ambitions of tech companies. It would jump on the bandwagon of treating the brief Gamestop stock-buying frenzy of last month as some kind of populist morality play about predatory hedge funds. It would legitimize conspiracies about election fraud, offer a supportive fist pump for insurrectionists gathering on Capitol Hill, and lead the vote against certification of Pennsylvania's election results even after rioters stormed the building, sending members of Congress into hiding to avoid attack.
Most of that can described as symbolic politics designed to elevate Hawley's brand among the most Trump-aligned members of the Republican base. But just this week, Hawley pushed beyond symbolism by releasing a plan to boost the income of low-wage workers. It was an effort to forge a populist path forward without supporting the more traditional minimum wage hikes recently endorsed by Republican Sens. Cotton and Mitt Romney, let alone the much larger one favored by the Biden administration and most Democrats. Instead of raising the federally mandated floor on wages, Hawley proposes to use a complicated refundable tax credit to increase the take-home wages of those earning less than $16.50 per hour.
Hawley's plan would certainly help low-wage workers — but its complexity would also make it hard for them to anticipate their take-home pay and end up sharply reducing the returns on finding higher-paying jobs, since the combination of taxes and the phase-out of the benefit would gobble up something on the order of 75 cents of every additional dollar of pay. In the end, under Hawley's plan those near the poverty line would be facing marginal tax rates rivaling or surpassing those paid by the wealthy.
It's hard to see why such an approach to policy should be considered more populist than Cotton's and Romney's more straightforward proposal to raise pre-tax wages outright (in return for more widespread use of E-verify to prevent the hiring of undocumented immigrants) — let alone Romney's generous child-benefit plan. Yet this is where Hawley's loudly proclaimed solidarity with the American worker has led him.
It's somewhat more than symbolism, but quite a bit less than a genuine break from the Republican Party's usual plutocratic priorities.
If Hawley wants to contribute in a bolder and more-than-symbolic way to reorienting his party, he's going to have to join Romney and Cotton in making a cleaner break with the Republican past. Which means he's also going to have to do more to move beyond simply saying no.