Looking at a Florida Congressman to read the tea leaves of Republican next steps.
To get a sense of the anxieties and tensions Washington, you need go no further than Daytona Beach, Florida, in a purple part of a purple state in a purple nation. After November’s Republican sweep, and 100 days into the administration of President Donald Trump, with accompanying Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and most state offices, members of the GOP are in the awkward position of governing a nation that is much more split than the red maps of their dominant positions would indicate. The representative in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, Ron DeSantis, a Republican loyalist, is at the center of this tide, which is showing the strains that emerge when outsiders gain power, especially when surrounded by all those who don’t support them.
DeSantis, now in his fifth year in office, made a public presentation on April 17th, as part of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Speaker Series. The presentation was neither a speech nor a town hall. Earlier gatherings since the election, billed as Town Halls, were filled with spirited constituents, split not just politically left to right, but also in their seats, back to front. Disagreements are sown into the history of town halls. Going back to colonial New England, and with roots in the small-scale democracies of Switzerland and ancient Athens, these have been public spaces for citizens of all stripes to meet, talk, and listen. The democratic hope has been that the verbal fighting inside the meetings would mean less fighting outside. Town halls do not assume public harmony. They are places to find direction despite disagreements, and even through disagreements.
At DeSantis’s town halls, angry questions (generally from the back rows) showed objections to his market approaches to health care and his hopes to increase the military budget, even as he received a lot of equally angry defenses of his views (generally in the front rows). Lots of disagreement, often raucous, but throughout, the people’s representative heard them all.
For the April event, the Congressman made plans to meet the public on very different terms. He chose a friendly setting; this university population is largely Republican, and the ushers for the evening were members of the university Republican Club. Would representatives of other parties also be assisting for the evening? “There is no Democratic Club,” said one of the polite, well-dressed Republicans. DeSantis was interviewed by talk-radio host Marc Bernier, with generally factual and sympathetic questions for almost an hour before opening the floor to the crowd who had more hard-hitting questions. Even before the Congressman’s arrival, Bernier set the tone for the evening by instructing the audience: “what you are witnessing is not a town hall,” and when it is time for questions, “no follow ups.” He explained that this would allow as many questions as possible. This presentation would be more orderly than a town hall, but without much dialogue, boisterous or otherwise; and the format meant that the Congressman would have the last word on each topic.
Rather than serving as a forcing house for citizen exchange, the presentation would be a chance for citizens to get a primer on current politics from the point of view of Representative DeSantis—and with that, a measure of the current mind of Republicans in Washington, between White House and Congress, between Tea Party conservatives and moderates of the Republican Tuesday Group, and between exuberant Republicans in Washington who run against “the swamp” in Washington and frustrated Democrats and non-voters cynical about the GOP agenda.
DeSantis’s presentation sheds light on three questions about what to expect with Republican dominance in government.
How will anti-Washington campaigning translate into action? In the last few generations, Republicans have been increasing dominated by small-government sentiments, vividly expressed by Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform: “I just want to shrink [the federal government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Recent Republican victories present a historic opportunity to do just that. At his presentation, DeSantis said “the government causes problems,” but he made no mention of cuts in some of the largest government programs including Social Security, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs; he also criticized the Affordable Care Act for reducing competition. Meanwhile he supports large increases in government defense spending. When small-government Republicans first gained the White House in the 1970s and 1980s, Patrick Buchanan, a major advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan said, “Vigorously did we inveigh against the [Democrat-sponsored government programs of the] Great Society, enthusiastically did we fund it.”
Congressman DeSantis devoted more time and energy to personal versions of standing up to Washington power and privilege, such as his support of term limits and elimination of pensions for members of Congress. He made good points about the tradeoffs that come with limiting the time politicians have in office: seniority earns power and influence, but more time in office breeds “Washington insularity,” with eroding awareness of life outside the Beltway. He spoke vigorously for the ancient hopeful prospect that with short terms in office, politicians would enter government not for power but for service. These statements received some of the biggest applause of the night, as did his hope to end pensions for members of Congress. And yet the Congressman also suggested grandfathering in current members of Congress, so they would not be fully impacted by term limits. This produced murmurs in the audience, and he emphasized his distaste for special privileges for the powerful, especially when all those experienced former politicians, out of office from term limits or retirement, become “very marketable [as] consultants” in Washington.
Congressman DeSantis devoted more attention to the personal dimensions of political power by highlighting his hope to end healthcare subsidies for members of Congress brought on by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This stand received a lot of applause at the presentation, as it has since North Carolina Republican Robert Pittenger first made similar statements on the Mike Huckabee Show in 2010, punctuating his opposition to special privilege by stating, “It’s a matter of principle.” But FactCheck.org points out that members of Congress and their staffs actually have had more restrictions on their healthcare plans than do average citizens. Before the ACA, Congressional workers, as federal employees, received a contribution to their payment of health insurance premiums from their employer, the federal government; these employees share this general American pattern shared with most workers. But under the ACA, Congressional employees then had to get their insurance plans through one of the exchanges, putting them in the same boat as uninsured people, “individuals who buy their own insurance, including the now uninsured, and small businesses”; this was a provision proposed by Republicans. In 2013, the Office of Personnel Management reversed this policy, in part from worry that it would bring a brain drain of Congressional staffers who might go to other jobs with lower healthcare costs. The so-called “Congressional subsidy” has gone full circle back to the employee benefits long available for members of Congress and their staffs, well before the ACA. There are surely other debatable points with the ACA, but this is not one of them.
What foreign policy can we expect in this season of Republicans in the driver’s seat? The Trump administration has been characterized by both inconsistency and toughness. The Republican president ran on a promise to reduce US involvement overseas and even some admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin; once in office, one of his first major action was the bombing of a Syrian airbase after outrage over Syrian use of chemical weapons. At the presentation, Congressman DeSantis showed himself a loyal supporter of the president, even with his inconsistencies, arguing that, with Trump in power, “people will not know what he will do—and that’s good.” He also lined up with the administration’s current tough tone with Russia, stating that it is better to “deal with Putin by being strong”; and he charged former President Barak Obama with being too weak, especially for talking tough against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons, but not taking strong action. DeSantis also accused the Democratic president of duplicity in publicly claiming that Asad had given up all his chemical weapons when they privately assumed that he was keeping some. DeSantis was also enthusiastic about Vice President Mike Pence’s warning to North Korea, who recently declared that the “era of strategic patience is over,” and about the recent US bombing in Afghanistan because it is “a signal that we will fight to win.” How to achieve American victory in such complex settings—or even what victory means in these contexts—is far from clear, but we can expect more tough stances emerging from Republican Washington, with impulses, consistent or otherwise, to rely more on military action than on diplomacy or cultural projects to reduce the chances of war.
At his presentation, DeSantis’s tough foreign policy positions received a lot of applause, which is a reminder of the current wave of populism represented by Trump and some segments of the Republican Party. What will populism mean in practice? The Congressman’s stances on topics as different as the space program and environmental protection provide clues about the populist impulses among Republicans these days. When asked about the future of space exploration, he showed enthusiasm for continued investment of “private money,” such as from SpaceX, but he added that “government will still be involved.” He was most clear with “the national defense aspect,” implying support for weapons in space if not a defense shield, but he did not specify. He was most firm in stating that he would not support “things from left field,” which suggests lack of enthusiasm for scientific experiments unless they can show practical benefits. This has been a concern of scientists, many of whom marched and spoke out on Earth Day, April 22, against administration proposals to cut basic research in science, including data collection on the impacts of climate change. This leaves open the question for DeSantis, for Trump, and for the Republican Party in general: is scientific investigation, including for understanding of climate change, for them simply an issue from left field?
DeSantis offered similar comments on environmental protection. To a question about Trump’s plans to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency, the Congressman spoke in favor of protecting “the core environment: air, water, and land,” but he did not favor other protections. He provided clues about this distinction in stating that regulations on power plants would “hammer employees.” This seems an endorsement of some pollution (and habitat loss, species extinctions, and other erosions of environmental health) as the unfortunate side effects of economic growth, which will remain the Republican first priority. This expresses the mainstream view that too much concern for the environment is rather “odd,” and this assumes a stark choice: environmental health versus economic growth. However, he and most other Republicans make no mention of the environmental services that healthy nature provides, for both our practical work and our quality of life; and this means that we cannot expect to see Republicans leading toward an economy with more sustainable development. A recent report of job prospects supports the significance of this trend: wind-turbine technician is the fastest growing job in the US today.
Despite Donald Trump’s impulsive expressions, we can expect that Republican trends will not challenge mainstream values and assumptions. Listening to Congressman DeSantis as a barometer of Republicans in Washington suggests the immediate next directions under Republican steerage: we can expect bold but cautious criticism of Washington elites since that group now includes them, much tough talk in foreign policy and likely military engagements in the near future, and limited support for scientific research or environmental protection. And Republicans will be keen to describe any other views as proposals from left field.