No more limited-government ideals? DeSantis pitches GOP voters on the power of the state.

Many Republicans and scholars say it is what the party’s voters increasingly want from their leaders.
On an array of issues, Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken what was a vaguely defined instinct from former President Donald Trump and turned it into a policy agenda more far-reaching than anything Trump pursued in the White House.
On an array of issues, Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken what was a vaguely defined instinct from former President Donald Trump and turned it into a policy agenda more far-reaching than anything Trump pursued in the White House. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published March 17|Updated March 21

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis uses his new political memoir to describe how he views the future of the Republican Party, and he’s making a bet that most conservative voters are ready for it.

It is a vision that jettisons the limited-government philosophy of the GOP of the past in favor of the aggressive use of state power to implant conservative values in government and society using what he has advanced in Florida as his template.

DeSantis embraces former President Donald Trump’s combative approach to opposition and the media and, rather than looking abroad, focuses on the enemy from within: “entrenched elites” and “politicized” institutions that operate government by “bureaucratic fiat, not popular consent.”

The concept is not exactly a new governing philosophy in the GOP, but many Republicans and scholars say it is what the party’s voters increasingly want from their leaders.

“DeSantis is interested in a more philosophically coherent approach to being a conservative in office, and using the power of government to achieve conservative ends in a way that Trump grasped at in different ways,” said Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “But DeSantis is more methodical.”

On an array of issues, the governor has taken what was a vaguely defined instinct from the former president and turned it into a policy agenda more far-reaching than anything Trump pursued in the White House.

Indeed, in his book, “The Courage to Be Free,” DeSantis describes how he used his executive authority against school boards, cruise lines, Disney, universities, race studies, local governments and “activist corporations.” He writes with contempt for free-market Republicans who “caved to the demands of large corporations,” and argues instead for government intervention in issues of speech and personal choice “in a way that protects individuals from these powerful institutions.”

Related: 5 highlights from DeSantis’ book, ‘The Courage to Be Free’

“Wielding authority”

DeSantis’ vision has been derided as authoritarian by critics and, even within the GOP, the idea that the party is eschewing its long-held policy of government restraint has put many Republican faithful in a difficult position.

He writes that an “energetic executive” should serve as a check on the power of private businesses, including Big Tech and “traditional corporations,” and he scolds his Republican predecessors, arguing that the way Republicans did business is no longer a sufficient check on the growing influence of the liberal movement.

“For years, the default conservative posture has been to limit government and then get out of the way,” he writes. “… In this context, elected officials who do nothing more than get out of the way are essentially green-lighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society.”

The approach is similar to Trump’s, whose application of state force included railing against liberal censorship and then imposing speech restrictions on government contractors, universities and federal agencies to silence talk of systemic racism.

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Like Trump, DeSantis has imposed bans on speech relating to gender and diversity at universities. In addition, he has advanced policies that withhold state investments in banks that practice environmental, social and diversity policies. He has prosecuted felons for voting, even though they received government-issued voter ID cards.

Related: Police cameras show confusion, anger over DeSantis' voter fraud arrests

He threatened Disney, suggesting he would dissolve its special taxing district because of its advocacy on behalf of LBGTQ rights and against his proposals. He banned companies from requiring vaccinations, and battled cruise lines over vaccine passports. And he ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren from office, calling it a “clear signal to other prosecutors around Florida” not to follow Warren’s lead on progressive policies.

For DeSantis, who served three terms in Congress before becoming governor, Republicans are as to blame for the status quo as Democrats, and he openly advocates for the use of state power to punish private businesses.

“For decades, a huge swath of GOP elected officials have campaigned on free market principles, but governed as corporatists — supporting subsidies, tax breaks, and legislative carve-outs to confer special benefits on entrenched corporate interests,” DeSantis writes.

The governor’s pressuring of private businesses continued this week, when the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation filed a complaint against the Hyatt Regency Miami, putting the hotel chain on notice that its state liquor license will be revoked because of a drag show at the adjacent James L. Knight Center in which the state claimed minors were present.

He has expanded the scope of his executive authority, issuing hundreds of executive orders each year, and adopted rules to restrict speech and public gatherings.

For example, the Florida Department of Management Services last year issued a rule to empower law enforcement to remove from the Capitol demonstrators they think may prove disruptive. This year, the agency issued a new rule banning any organization, including companies and advocacy organizations, from reserving space in the Capitol unless the DeSantis administration has determined that it “aligns” with its mission.

Before DeSantis got his start in politics, he wrote a book in 2011, “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers,” in which he laments the decline in the country’s “limited government roots.” As a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, he focused on fiscal restraint, immigration and “identifying the shortcomings of the modern Republican establishment.”

Republicans, in general, believe that the free market should prevent the government from dictating to corporations, and DeSantis’ aggressive approach is not only a striking contrast to the governor’s prior positions, it has also left some members of his party uncomfortable.

“I have concerns about the follow on,” said former Vice President Mike Pence during an interview on CNBC in February. “Disney stepped into the fray, they lost, but then (targeting) the taxing authority — that was beyond the scope of what I, as a conservative, limited-government Republican would be prepared to do.”

Policy inconsistencies

John Thrasher, a former head of the Republican Party of Florida, former Florida House speaker and now-retired president of Florida State University, says the governor’s policies include “a little inconsistency about free speech and the First Amendment.”

He recalled how DeSantis came to the FSU campus in 2019 and issued a statement calling for the state’s public colleges and universities to adopt a resolution protecting student free speech, commonly known as the “Chicago Statement.”

“And yet, now the Legislature seems to be wanting to tell the faculty members what they can say and what they can’t say and when they could say it, which is a little bit inconsistent,” Thrasher said.

Using extensive government power while proclaiming to protect individual rights is not unique to DeSantis, said Nicole Hemmer, historian and author of two books on the conservative right.

“That’s something that Donald Trump did as well and it met very little resistance among his supporters and among the Republican base,” she said. “It’s not necessarily ideologically consistent, but that ideological inconsistency has been part of conservative politics for decades.”

DeSantis also distanced himself from some conservatives in his party this week when he responded to questions about Ukraine in a questionnaire from Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The governor — who as a congressman criticized the Obama administration for not supporting Ukraine forcefully enough against Russian aggression — described Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine “as a territorial dispute” and suggested that the defense of Ukraine should not be a priority for an American president.

Related: Has Ron DeSantis changed his stance on Ukraine?

Party shifts

DeSantis’ strong-executive vision may clash with the post-Reagan and pre-Trump conservative approach, but many Republicans today argue the party is changing rapidly, shifting away from affluent voters more interested in limited-government orthodoxy and toward blue-collar workers who feel increasingly overlooked by a shifting global economy and evolving social norms.

“This is no longer the party of country clubs,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a high-profile annual gathering of conservatives from across the country.

Others see it in harsher terms.

Mac Stipanovich, a former GOP consultant who served as chief of staff for former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, describes the dominant viewpoint in the Republican Party today as one of “right-wing populist authoritarians.”

DeSantis’ approach to government is a stark contrast to the Reagan ideal of “the best government is the government closest to the people,” he said.

“Just look at his savaging of local governments and local voters, whether it’s school boards, city councils or county commissions — he is just dictating everything out of Tallahassee with highly centralized government,” he continued. “… DeSantis decides who can come in and can’t come into your business, and what you can and can’t tell your employees when you’re giving them human resources training.

“That is about as unconservative and un-Republican, historically speaking, as you could possibly conceive.”

For scholars like Brown who have studied the evolution of American politics, DeSantis’ decision to shift from the libertarian, small-government advocate to strong-government activist “parallels the Republican Party as a whole, compared to where we were 10 years ago.”

“The party is much more willing to be open to the idea that government doesn’t just need to take its hands off the wheel and let the free market do the rest, but that there is a role for the government to play,” he said.

At a recent retreat for high-value donors hosted by the conservative Club for Growth, DeSantis scorned his fellow Republicans because they act “like potted plants” in culture-war battles against the mainstream media and the left, according to Fox News.

“I’m not content to just keep taxes low and stay out of anything else,” he said. “… My policies are helping to protect people from having the woke ideology shoved down their throats in institution after institution.”

“Sleight of hand”

Hemmer, the historian, said that one argument Democrats may seize upon against DeSantis is that Florida is restricting freedoms in ways that polls consistently show are not popular, such as pushing to deregulate guns and banning abortions at six weeks.

But DeSantis has also adopted a “particularly effective sleight of hand,” Hemmer said.

By cultivating an image as a crusader for freedom and taking on issues such as COVID-19 lockdowns, sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, banning drag shows and gender discussions in schools, he is “focusing on issues that are both really emotionally satisfying to the base in Florida and across the nation,” she said. “And they have a ‘trigger the lib’ quality to them — where they provoke a kind of real outrage and reaction from people who oppose those policies.”

But most importantly, she said, is that DeSantis is also “recoding all of that as protecting freedom — because so much of the policies that he is pursuing actually take away freedom.”

Despite writing a book, major parts of the governor’s overall vision for the country remain unanswered. Scholars, for instance, say it’s still unclear how much of the populist economic agenda DeSantis will embrace, including policies like expanding the child tax credit or economic nationalism.

“Ron DeSantis just represents a continuation of the turn that the party has taken not just in the past decade, but really over the past 20 or 30 years,” Hemmer said. “He is adding a little sophistication to the Trump program, but he’s not just grafting it on to his own politics. This is just an evolution in the same direction.”

CORRECTION: An early version of this story incorrectly stated which governor Mac Stipanovich had served under. He was chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez.