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Where is the Republican Party headed? That's one of the most interesting and portentous questions looming over American politics in 2021. Where many Democrats see the GOP flirting with outright authoritarianism, The Washington Post's Henry Olsen sees a less ominous contest over policy priorities. In a recent column, he lays out the five factions jostling for control of the party's agenda, with the main point of disagreement coming down to how sharply Republicans should break from their former fealty to the interests of big business.
The Old Guard are those like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey who remain wedded to the free-market, pro-business orthodoxy that prevailed from the Reagan revolution on down through Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
The Adapters, including former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former vice president Mike Pence, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, mainly want to keep things as they were, though they are willing to experiment with some Trumpian shifts on immigration and policy toward China.
The Searchers, meanwhile, actively want to rebrand the GOP as the "party of the working class" but remain deeply unsettled about how to translate that ambition into policy.
The Reformers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, are also on board with this populist shift, but they have been bold enough to begin crafting a substantive policy agenda to go along with it — one that actively seeks to provide help and support for the working class.
Olsen calls the final group The Prophets, though he admits that so far it is the smallest one, and he names only one person — Ohio senatorial candidate J.D. Vance — who is prophetic enough to fit into it. If his campaign is successful, then others are sure to join Vance in launching outright attacks on libertarianism and calling for tax hikes on companies that move jobs overseas.
Olsen's taxonomy is illuminating, though I wonder whether focusing on policy differences is the right way to think about where the GOP is going. None of the individuals Olsen calls out by name is doing very well in early polling for 2024. (Only Pence comes close to double digits, and the rest languish in the low single digits.) Donald Trump remains very much in the lead, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis the only person giving him anything close to a run for his money — and what makes both men distinctive is their relentless culture-war framing of their policy choices. That could point toward a future GOP in which policy substance matters very little, and certainly far less than a candidate's facility at "owning the libs."