Ron DeSantis and the Rise of Free Lunch Conservatism

As a congressman, Ron DeSantis voted against federal financial aid for New York and New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Now, as governor of Florida, he fully supports federal funding for his state.

A little hypocrisy is nothing new in politics. But since becoming governor, DeSantis has become a political star characterized by an unusual degree of indulgence in free lunch politics. His ability to position himself as a culture warrior reflects not only political acumen (though he certainly has) but a series of contingent situations that allow him to largely avoid the difficult parts of governing, such as setting priorities and make tradeoffs.

His little adventure of sending a charter plane to Texas to bring Venezuelan asylum seekers to Massachusetts is a case in point. Smart in raising the profile of issues that are bad for Democrats. It’s very clever to inject Ron DeSantis into a story that has nothing to do with him.

But most governors are reluctant to take on such a high cost, as even its admirers admit it is just a political stunt. After all, who wants to hear that the state road through town isn’t being resurfaced because the governor is costing the transportation to charter flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard?

But DeSantis doesn’t have to face any trade-offs because he’s able to use federal funds for state and local government aid under the U.S. rescue package. The cash even went to a charter company that donated to Florida Republicans, a win-win for everyone involved.

It’s hard to accuse the governor of using the funds available to him. But it’s worth emphasizing that DeSantis has spoken out against U.S. rescue programs — especially state and local rescue funding, which he describes as “basically designed to bail out poorly governed states.”

That was the story of most of his tenure: He slammed big government while benefiting from its generosity. His attacks on “wake indoctrination” of the state’s schools were combined with generous pay raises for teachers who acted as his surrogates. While condemning President Joe Biden’s spending for fueling inflation, he is using federal funds to send stimulus checks to Florida households that he says will help them fight inflation.

A new populist conservative political style that focuses on right-wing cultural themes while generously providing disaster relief, teacher salaries and direct cash payments to poor families would be an interesting development. To make it a reality, however, conservatives need to revise their traditional hostility to taxation. DeSantis didn’t do that at all. While spending more, he is cutting taxes and taking advantage of a strong economy to implement irresponsible pro-cyclical fiscal policies.

It must be said that Florida is the perfect laboratory for so-called Free Lunch conservatism. Not only does it often need federal aid for disaster relief, but its economy is also disproportionately dependent on the federal welfare state. Florida has the second-highest percentage of citizens over the age of 65 (behind Maine) and the second-highest Medicare spending per patient (behind New Jersey)—meaning the federal government is sending money to the local economy Inject a lot of money. Meanwhile, the state’s leader has boasted of no income tax, and its conservative representatives in Washington have complained about excessive spending.

There is a tendency to say that this conservative brand of free lunches couldn’t have taken DeSantis all the way to the White House. But the truth is, it could.

Both Donald Trump and George W. Bush have achieved political success by combining tax cuts aimed at the wealthy with smaller tax cuts aimed at the middle class, while boosting military and domestic spending. They both face their greatest moment of political peril when they try to shelve free lunch politics and slash federal health care spending (Trump’s failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act) or retire (Bush’s ill-fated attempt to put Social Security privatization).

They could have done better by simply embracing the conservatism of the free lunch. Conservatives’ growing belief that trying to reconcile GOP donors’ tax aversion with GOP voters’ reliance on government programs is more trouble than it’s worth — a belief that helps explain DeSanti The rise of Sri Lanka as a national figure. Instead of criticizing his irresponsible and hypocritical approach to fiscal matters, conservatives increasingly see it as the way forward.

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

Inflation is currently high, causing political headaches for Biden and Democrats. But the Fed is taking action to raise interest rates and fix the problem. According to market-based measures, inflation is expected to fall as nominal interest rates rise, implying higher real interest rates in the future. It’s not yet a crisis for American policymakers, but it could be if a new president tries to impose free lunch politics at the federal level. Increased federal borrowing would translate directly into higher mortgage costs and loan fees for small businesses, turning budget politics into a real issue rather than an abstract debate.

For now, though, DeSantis will be the governor of a state whose coffers are flooded with federal stimulus money he opposes while collecting emergency relief money that he doesn’t think other states should get, while he said , his citizens benefit disproportionately from federal spending is disproportionate. If you can get it, great – and while it lasts.

More from Bloomberg Views:

• DeSantis’ Misguided Vendetta on “Awakening Capital”: Matthew Winkler

• DeSantis is not a Trump clone, he’s just a Republican: Ramesh Ponnuru

• Texas and Florida are completely Belarusian on immigration: Andreas Kluth

• Florida and DeSantis ignore Covid-19 and critics: Joe Nocera

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

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he writes the slow and boring blog and newsletter. Most recently, he was the author of “A Billion Americans.”

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