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Opinion: The delicate balancing act of Senator Josh Hawley

Senator Josh Hawley’s call for a national industrial policy highlights just how much President Donald Trump changed the Republican Party. It also highlights the delicate balancing act for Senator Hawley and other Republican presidential hopefuls.

Hawley has proposed legislation, the Make in America to Sell in America Act of 2021, which would “… require multi-national corporations make more critical goods in America by instituting new local content requirements…” To sell critical goods in the U.S., companies would have to produce at least 50 percent of the value of their goods in the country.

Traditionally, Republicans have supported free trade and free competition. They used to label what Hawley proposed as “protectionism” and a danger to our economy. Trump’s populism reoriented the Republican Party, making it possible for Republicans to acknowledge there are also downsides to international trade. In a way, Trump was a transformative president for our country, changing our national conversations around China, trade, and border security, to name just a few.

But Hawley’s call for a national industrial policy also highlights something else about Trump: how little he actually achieved. For all of his talk, Trump didn’t do much to change our government. Frankly, he didn’t even bother trying. While campaigning, he repeatedly promised to implement policies that would cause companies to “start making their products, not in China, but in the U.S.A.” But other than the steel tariffs, he went four years without proposing an industrial policy to support U.S. manufacturing. Even when the pandemic offered an opportunity to re-start domestic surgical mask production, his administration refused to commit to purchasing the U.S.-produced masks. 

Even on his signature issue, immigration, Trump accomplished surprisingly little. Illegal immigration is driven by jobs that draw people to our country, laws that give them legal status, and border security that allows them in. Trump the candidate had the answers. Mandate employer use of E-Verify to confirm the citizenship of employees. Clarify refugee laws to limit refugee status to people fleeing wars, not crime or domestic abuse. And ensure that the border is secure.

Trump the president, of course, didn’t do any of these things. He didn’t even really try. His annual budget proposals had a token line about E-Verify, but that was it — no follow-up, no pressure on Congress. He didn’t bother proposing clarifications to the refugee laws. On border security, the president fell far short of what our country needed. He prioritized building a wall along parts of the border that hadn’t seen an illegal crossing in decades. Trump ignored more sophisticated technologies that would have made a difference where people were actually coming over. We needed a nuanced, sophisticated policy that fit the realities of illegal immigration. We got a slogan that fits on a bumper sticker.  

And so the delicate balancing act for Republicans considering running for president. They have to do everything they can to attach themselves to the ideas that got voters excited, to show they can carry on what Trump promised. But they also have to be careful to not infuriate Trump by pointing out his failure to even try to implement most of his campaign promises. Hawley had a very gentle line in a recent editorial in support of his bill.:But President Biden seems determined to repeat the follies of the past.” That’s not quite pointing out Trump’s failures, but it’s sure not a ringing endorsement of his accomplishments.  

Everybody is assuming if Trump runs for president in 2024, Hawley will not. But would an ambitious politician like Hawley really back off? Or will Hawley convince himself that Trump is destined to lose again, that Hawley would be doing the party and country a favor by running? Trump had four years to change our government and he didn’t.Give me another shot at it” isn’t really a compelling campaign message.  

Arguably, a candidate without Trump’s toxic history would have a better chance of winning and actually implementing Trump’s ideas. Who knows if Hawley is ambitious enough to actually challenge Trump for the nomination. But he certainly is putting in place the pieces necessary to claim the president’s mantle, whether Trump wants to give it up or not.