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What Conservatism Should Look Like After Trump

Michael R. Strain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The right-wing populism of President Donald Trump has led the Republican Party away from its traditional commitments to free markets, advancing economic opportunity, openness and personal responsibility, and towards an embrace of racial grievance, hostility to immigrants and protectionism. But Trump’s time in the White House will end soon enough, either in one year or in five, and GOP leaders need to define the future of the political right.

Senator Marco Rubio has taken an important step in that direction. In a speech on Nov. 5 at Catholic University in Washington, he sketched the outlines of what he called a “common-good capitalism.”

The 48-year-old Florida Republican claimed that his goal was not “to define a post-Trump conservatism.” But regardless of his objective, his speech will be part of the effort to do exactly that, and conservatives would be wise to pay attention.

The specifics of Rubio’s economic-policy agenda need work. (More on that in a moment.) But what made his speech stand out was his broader goal of refocusing the Republican Party on workers and “the opportunity to attain the dignity that comes from hard work.”

Rubio grounded his argument in the Catholic faith that he and I share. To support his emphasis on work and workers, he quoted the late Pope John Paul II, who argued that a society “in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment cannot be justified.”

Drawing on the 19th-century papal letter "Rerum Novarum," Rubio cited the rights of workers and businesses — well-trod ground in the current policy debate — but also focused on their duties. He argued that businesses have an obligation to invest in their workers while making profits. He said that people have an obligation to work, but also that workers should be guaranteed a fair share of the benefits of their production. From a conservative, this is unusual — and welcome.

He contrasted his vision with what he criticized as the traditional Republican approach of focusing excessively on the needs of businesses and the importance of profits and gross-domestic-product growth, and warned against making the market a false idol.

“Our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market,” he said. “The market exists to serve our nation and our people.”

Rubio’s critique is accurate, though overstated. The GOP has focused too much on the heroic entrepreneur and too little on the quiet dignity of working-class and middle-class workers. And the right’s policy agenda has slighted the needs of workers and policies that can support employment and advance economic opportunity.

But the specifics of Rubio’s agenda need work. He leans too heavily into today’s populist frustration, arguing in his speech (and elsewhere) for policies to promote specific industries, like manufacturing and mining, and for curtailing stock buybacks. (He has good ideas, as well, like allowing businesses to immediately write off the cost of new investment, which would increase productivity and workers’ wages.)

The senator, who well before Trump had already been a leader in the effort to update the GOP’s policy platform from its Reagan-era vintage, is clearly trying to work out the specifics of his new agenda. He should stick closer to the right’s longstanding commitments to markets, advancing opportunity and insistence on individual responsibility, and further away from populism.

Doing so would not need to divert him from his worthy focus on workers. Much the opposite. For example, Rubio could push to break down barriers in the labor market, help ex-offenders get jobs by regulating how employers ask job-seekers about criminal records, back an agenda to increase the skills of workers so that they can command higher wages in competitive markets, and expand federal earnings subsidies to low-income households, both to draw them into the workforce and to help lift them out of poverty.

The political right should have been more focused on workers long ago. Rubio is right to move in that direction. His challenge will be to keep that focus while retaining the essential parts of the right’s traditional approach to economic policy, and discarding the economically damaging and socially corrosive elements of Trumpism.

He did not fully succeed in doing this at Catholic University. But he made a great start.

To contact the author of this story: Michael R. Strain at mstrain4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of “The U.S. Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy.”

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