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Ron DeSantis and the Rise of Free-Lunch Conservatism

How far can he go? (Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America)

As a member of Congress, Ron DeSantis voted against providing federal financial assistance to New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. Now, as governor of Florida, he’s all for delivering federal money to his state.

A little dose of hypocrisy is nothing new in politics. But DeSantis’s rise to political stardom since becoming governor has been characterized by an unusual level of indulgence in free-lunch politics. And his ability to position himself as a culture warrior reflects not just political savvy (though he surely has that) but a set of fortuitous circumstances that has allowed him to mostly avoid the hard parts of governing, such as setting priorities and making tradeoffs.

His little adventure sending a charter plane to Texas to take Venezuelan asylum-seekers to Massachusetts is a case in point. It was clever in terms of raising the salience of an issue that is bad for Democrats. And it was very clever in terms of injecting Ron DeSantis into a story that has nothing to do with him.

But most governors would hesitate to incur this level of expense for something that even its admirers concede is just a political stunt. After all, who wants to hear that the state highway through town isn’t getting repaved because the governor spent the transportation money on charter flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard?

But DeSantis didn’t need to face any tradeoffs, because he was able to use funds sent by the federal government for state and local government assistance under the American Rescue Plan. The cash even went to a plane charter company that donates to Florida Republicans, making it a win-win for everyone involved.

It is hard to fault a governor for making use of funds that are available to him. But it’s worth emphasizing that DeSantis vocally opposed the American Rescue Plan — especially the state and local relief money, which he characterized as “designed basically to bail out the poorly governed states.”

And this has been the story of much of his tenure: He bashes big government while benefiting from its largesse. His attacks on “woke indoctrination” in the state’s schools have been paired with generous pay increases to the very teachers who are its agents. While denouncing President Joe Biden’s spending as contributing to inflation, he’s using federal money to send stimulus checks to Florida families, which he says will help them cope with inflation.

A new style of populist conservative politics that focuses on right-wing cultural themes while being generous with disaster relief, teacher pay and direct cash payments to needy families would be an interesting development. To make it a reality, however, conservatives would need to revise their traditional hostility to taxes. DeSantis hasn’t done that at all. While raising spending he’s also cutting taxes, taking advantage of the strong economy to run irresponsible pro-cyclical fiscal policy.

Florida, it must be said, is a perfect laboratory for what might be called free-lunch conservatism. Not only is it in regular need of federal assistance for hurricane relief, its economy is also unusually dependent on the federal welfare state. Florida has the second-highest share of citizens over 65 (after Maine) and it’s second in per-patient Medicare spending (after New Jersey) — meaning that the federal government is injecting vast sums of money into the local economy. Meanwhile, the state’s leaders brag about not having an income tax and its conservative representatives in Washington complain about excessive spending.

One is inclined to say this brand of free-lunch conservatism can’t possibly take DeSantis all the way to the White House. But the truth is, it might.

Both Donald Trump and George W. Bush prospered politically by pairing tax cuts for the rich with smaller tax cuts for the middle class, while also raising military and domestic spending. Both of them faced their moments of maximum political peril when they tried to set free-lunch politics aside and enact significant cuts to federal spending on health care (Trump’s ill-fated attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act) or retirement (Bush’s ill-fated attempt to privatize Social Security).

They could have done better by simply embracing free-lunch conservatism. There is a growing belief among conservatives that trying to harmonize Republican donors’ aversion to taxes with the Republican electorate’s dependence on government programs is more trouble than it’s worth — and that belief helps explain DeSantis’s rise  as a national figure. Rather than criticizing his irresponsible and hypocritical approach to fiscal matters, conservatives are increasingly embracing it as the way forward.

But this may prove to be a case of fighting the last war.

Inflation is high right now, creating a political headache for Biden and the Democrats. But the Federal Reserve is moving to raise interest rates and address the issue. According to market-based measures, the expectation is that inflation will fall even as nominal rates rise, meaning higher real interest rates in the future. This is not yet anything close to a crisis for US policymakers, but it could be if a new president attempted to implement free-lunch politics at the federal level. Increased federal borrowing would translate directly to higher mortgage costs and loan expenses for small businesses, turning budgetary politics into a matter of genuine practical concern rather than abstract debate.

For now, though, DeSantis gets to be the governor of a state whose coffers are pumped full of federal stimulus money he opposes, while collecting emergency relief funding he doesn’t believe other states deserve, while his citizens disproportionately benefit from federal spending he says is excessive. Nice work if you can get it — and while it lasts.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• DeSantis’s Misguided Vendetta Against ‘Woke Capital’: Matthew Winkler

• DeSantis Isn’t a Trump Clone, He’s Just a Republican: Ramesh Ponnuru

• Texas and Florida Are Going Full Belarus on Migrants: Andreas Kluth

• Florida and DeSantis Defy Covid-19 and the Critics: Joe Nocera

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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