Last week venerable conservative columnist George Will called for voting against Republicans this November to rebuke President Trump, provoking no small amount of commentary. Some focused on dissecting the flaws in his theory—it would create bad policy outcomes, particularly on judges (a point Will conceded), and could make the Republican Party even more dependent upon Trump and his acolytes.
Into this debate unwittingly stepped Politico earlier this week, with a profile of Pennsylvania’s junior senator, Republican Pat Toomey. Having just won re-election to a six-year term, Toomey faces three big political advantages: First, he will not have to face an anti-Trump wave this year. Second, he will not share the ballot with Trump in two years. Third, he won his 2016 re-election by nearly twice as many votes as Trump did. The way he opposed Trump’s trade policies provides a useful template for others within his party to dissent from the chief executive.
Before talking any further about the senator, an obvious disclosure: Toomey gave me my first job on Capitol Hill. I have worked for him as an intern, an unpaid campaign volunteer, and a researcher on his book. In those roles I have seen him up close, including on an RV tour of his congressional district during his 2002 campaign (unlike the senior senator from Missouri, Toomey’s RV tour didn’t include any private planes). My firsthand experience with Toomey explains both why and how he can oppose the president’s policies—and how Republicans who disagree with Trump on an issue should do likewise.
1. Pick Something Important
First, speak out on an issue you care about—one of significant national import. Toomey believes that a trade war President Trump’s tariffs prompted could spark a major economic downturn, and undo the effects of the tax legislation passed late last year. He notes that the tariffs, along with the threats of more to come, are “already doing real damage,” such as this week’s news about Harley-Davidson moving some manufacturing overseas.
Politico notes that Toomey’s newfound role as “Trump’s sharpest antagonist on trade policy” stems from “his passion on economic issues,” a passion I know well. I still remember absorbing the arguments he made in drafts of his book: If foreign countries want to invest in the United States—and bring down the cost of goods Americans consume in the process—why should politicians enact arbitrary obstacles to that growth?
That argument holds little weight with Trump, who generally sees conflict in zero-sum terms—a trade deficit with another country must mean America has lost to someone, somehow. But it’s already resonating with some Harley owners.
It would resonate even more with Trump voters if cutting off sources of inexpensive apparel suddenly caused the price of a $10 T-shirt at Walmart to rise fivefold. Toomey believes passionately in free trade as an engine for good. It has created jobs and helped billions around the world to rise out of poverty. So he would rather stop any trade war before it starts.
2. Mind the Separation of Powers
Second, remember the important role that separation of powers plays. Will’s column harrumphed at Congress’ supine status, stating that a Republican congressional minority “will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers.” He cites Madison in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
Into that breach stepped Toomey on trade. He has given floor speeches rightly pointing out that he and his colleagues “are not potted plants.” In an interview with Politico, he asserted the institutional prerogatives that Will thought Republicans had heretofore forgotten: “The Constitution is completely unambiguous….It is the authority of Congress to establish tariffs….We’ve given him [i.e., the President] a lot of authority, and I think that is authority that should reside with Congress.”
3. Disagree Politely
Third, agree to disagree agreeably. Toomey does not understate the impact of Trump’s policies on trade: “We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” he notes. But in Politico’s words, he disagrees “politely but pointedly.” No calls for public heckling of cabinet officials, in the vein of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). No intemperate tweets, either.
I have seen Toomey listen politely during meetings with constituent groups, many of whom ask for government largesse of one sort or another, even if he does not, and will not, agree with them. So too with Trump. Toomey’s persistent firmness has prompted attention from the White House, and a call from Trump during negotiations with North Korea.
On both the policy of free trade and the necessity of the legislative branch standing firm in its beliefs, Will agrees with Toomey. His column last week highlighted the thwarted efforts of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Toomey’s partner, in their joint effort to prevent presidents from using national security reasons to impose tariffs unilaterally. Rather than focusing on the unsuccessful efforts of a senator departing Congress this fall, Will might do well to bolster the efforts of an earnest senator who will remain for four years more—and cultivate more like him.
I sympathize with Will’s plight about elections presenting bad, or at minimum sub-optimal, choices. During most of last year, when Republicans debated health care, many lawmakers focused more on the political goal of finding a bill that could garner enough votes to pass rather than achieving positive policy outcomes—lowering premiums, promoting health care freedom, and so on. Viewed through this prism, the midterm elections might appear a choice between a Republican Party with few coherent or decipherable principles and a Democratic Party fully embracing the wrong ones.
But an exemplar like Toomey, and the wisdom of scripture, suggest another possible outcome. In Genesis, God told Lot he would spare Sodom’s destruction to save ten righteous people in the city. Rather than waiting for electoral fire and brimstone to rain down on the licentious or sycophantic elements of the GOP in November, perhaps Will would do well to focus on highlighting the lawmakers like Toomey—Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee presents another obvious example—worth saving.