In 2020, the economic libertarians who once defined conservatism have disappeared. Instead the most interesting debate is among Republican policymakers crafting large-scale programs to get government checks into the hands of economically disenfranchised people as quickly as possible.

The two most notable politicians crafting stimulus policy for Trump to sign are Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Before the coronavirus crisis, both senators had taken stabs at articulating a new kind of policy populism for the GOP that was self-consciously anti-libertarian, skeptical of big business, and more comfortable with big government. When the economy started crashing in March, Rubio, the chairman of the Small Business Committee, helped dream up the massive Paycheck Protection Program, which has the government shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars out the door every month. Hawley, who is only 40 years old and was elected in 2018, wanted — and wants — something even more expansive: a program that would pay businesses to keep their workers on the payrolls…

Before the crisis, Rubio, Hawley and their fellow Republican populists (the term applies more to Hawley than Rubio) seemed to amount to little more than a small group of legislators, a tight network of D.C. policy wonks, and some right-leaning opinion columnists. But when the pandemic struck, they were suddenly crafting the most consequential and interventionist legislation of the century. Now the question is whether they represent the future of the GOP — the rising stars who will define the party after Trump — or whether they are simply like firefighters called in for an emergency before the party defaults back to its traditional small-government worldview.