Coronavirus Exposes a G.O.P. Divide: Is the Market Always Supreme?

Questions over whether the government should play a more active role in protecting Americans from global shocks like the coronavirus pandemic have exposed a widening divide in the Republican Party over whether the small-government, free-market brand of conservatism at the heart of its agenda — and a top priority of its biggest donors — is out of step with the times.

The debate traces some of the same ideological fault lines that run through the party over President Trump’s economic and trade policies, which excite many of the voters who are drawn to his nationalist appeals but alarm the party’s more traditional, pro-business wing.

In one of the most ambitious proposals from this group of new nationalists who are challenging a generation of Republican orthodoxy, Congress would mandate that certain products deemed essential to the national interest — like medicine, protective equipment including masks, and materials used to build telecommunications infrastructure — are manufactured in the United States.

The growing push is happening on Capitol Hill and in the pages of the right’s most influential publications, and it is being led by prominent conservative lawmakers, writers and policy experts. This week they will begin a new phase of their campaign with help from Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, who argue in essays in a new online journal that the coronavirus has exposed the nation’s need to be more aggressive and innovative with its laws so it can better protect itself from adversarial powers like China.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a choice as a country not to confront this,” Mr. Rubio said in an interview. Too often, he said, conservatives automatically oppose policies that impose new rules for American businesses, “and somehow you’re Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders” for supporting them.

In reality, Mr. Rubio added, the heavy hand of the government can be helpful in cases like this, where it is clear that the United States has become too reliant on Chinese manufacturing. “If in our public policy we are going to incentivize certain behavior, certain activities, it should be behavior and activities that are good for the country,” he said.

Oren Cass, the founder of American Compass, a new group that is publishing the essays by Mr. Cotton and Mr. Rubio and plans to host events that highlight similar themes, said this moment of national crisis was “almost kind of tailor-made to bring a lot of these issues to the fore.”

Conservatives like Mr. Cass believe that the traditional Republican economic view is not only hamstringing the country’s ability to protect itself, but also hurting the party with the voters whom Mr. Trump brought in — and who are not sharing in the vast wealth gains at the very top of the ladder.

Over the past 30 years, the American right has developed a misguided notion about what prosperity really is by having an “obsession with consumption,” Mr. Cass said, adding: “As long as the pie keeps growing, everyone can have pie. And who doesn’t love pie?”

“It seemed to me what that missed was that the components of prosperity are a whole lot more complex than consumption,” Mr. Cass said.

These kinds of statements are considered an apostasy in certain conservative circles, where the belief that capitalism and the free market will almost always arrive at the best and most efficient outcome is inviolable.

For years, Republicans have hewed to the idea that businesses generally know what is best for them and the economy, and that the best public policy leaves decisions largely to business owners and the free market. This has guided a generation of policy that favors deregulation and free trade.

But since Mr. Trump’s election — and his efforts to punish China for its trade practices and American companies that profit from sending jobs to countries where labor is cheaper — many Republicans have pushed their party to embrace the more nationalist elements of the president’s economic agenda.

Mr. Cass’s efforts have been met with some slings and arrows from the right. Last week, anyone searching for his name on Google would have immediately seen an ad that directed people to an article titled “The Case Against Oren Cass” on the website of the American Institute for Economic Research, a right-of-center group that promotes free-market principles.

Kevin Williamson, a columnist with National Review, has written that Mr. Cass’s work belongs to the “great tradition of college sophomores throughout the ages.”

American Compass will try to address what some conservatives see as the failure on the part of the right’s biggest think tanks and interest groups to embrace Mr. Trump’s skepticism of unfettered trade, and his willingness to use the power of the government to give American companies a competitive advantage.

Paul​ Winfree, director of economic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, said the right was still adjusting to Mr. Trump’s influence on policy.

“I think that a number of people have been trying to make sense of their own worldviews about politics and how that intersects with economic policy after Trump was elected,” he said. “And that is definitely affecting this debate.”

And while Mr. Winfree said that conservatives who support a more hands-on economic policy generally rely on too much “unsupported theory,” he added: “I do think it is worth challenging orthodoxies. Most things that are too big to fail are usually bad, and that includes ideas.”

J.D. Vance, the author of the book “Hillbilly Elegy,” which chronicled the despair in parts of rural America that helped fuel the rise of a figure like Mr. Trump, said the work being done at American Compass, where he is a contributing writer, was ultimately part of the larger debate over what happens to the Republican Party once Mr. Trump is no longer leading it. And the hope for him and like-minded Republicans is that they can shape that future.

“Among a type of establishment Republican, there’s definitely been this hope that when Trump goes, all of this stuff will disappear,” Mr. Vance said. “But if the trends in American politics continue, there’s just no way to imagine a Republican Party that doesn’t have a substantially different platform in 20 years.”

“That doesn’t mean the establishment can’t win a lot of battles in the short term,” he added.

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