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One Thing the Right and Left Agree on: Preemptive Federal Power

For hard-liners in both parties, aggressive action from Washington at the expense of state and local autonomy is more popular than ever. With both parties’ centrists also in the mix, the presidential election looks to be a four-way battle.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A series of his Florida policy proposals is widely viewed as the kinds of issues he would focus on in a Republican presidential campaign. (Shutterstock)
In early January, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he was worried about his Republican Party as it gears up for the 2024 presidential campaign. “I think we are in deeper trouble as a party than any time since 1964,” he told Politico, adding that he “can’t imagine how one could run the House with the blackmailers as self-righteous and militant as they currently are.”

Savoring Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s tightrope walk, Democrats are enjoying a rare moment of unity. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York won all 3,179 of the votes cast by Democrats in January’s 15-round speakership battle. The party’s unusual harmony is “sort of a championship moment,” said a happy Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire.

But if there’s any safe prediction, it’s that Democrats will go back to acting like Democrats, with factions battling over big policy issues. And Republicans, laboring in the long shadow of Donald Trump, will continue to struggle over their party’s future: Will traditional issues such as taxing and spending be central, or should the GOP go all-in on the cultural issues that animate its MAGA right?

Not so obvious, but perhaps even more important, are the tactics used by the Republican right and the Democratic left. They both see a strong role for Washington in favor of a strong, centralized federal government preempting state and local power.

At least since the 1960s and the Great Society, the Democrats have gradually elbowed aside the autonomy of state and local governments through the strings attached to federal aid. There was Medicaid and, later, Obamacare, both of which nudged their way into state and local policies. The progressives’ push is continuing unabated, as with the trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act’s aggressive clean-energy and other climate-change initiatives.

Add to those progressives’ aspirations for a higher federal minimum wage and a federal guarantee of abortion rights. The Democrats’ most progressive wing has a strong, long-standing taste for big national steps through federal action. They’re pushing President Biden to do even more, even in areas like police reform that at their core are traditionally local issues.

The far right, however, has become just as enthusiastic about using the federal government to push in the other direction. In a series of Florida policy proposals widely viewed as representative of issues he would highlight in a Republican presidential campaign, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis has targeted “woke banking,” with a plan to ban the state and its local governments from using environmental, social and corporate governance policies in making their investment decisions; has said he wants to create protections against “the biomedical security state” by permanently prohibiting COVID-19 mask requirements; and has even called for a tax exemption for the gas stoves that lately have been targeted by environmentalists.

Abortion is perhaps the toughest issue for Republicans. Anti-abortion activists have put party leaders on notice: “We are not yet done. Let me say that again: We are not yet done,” announced one activist. What do they have in mind? A federal ban on all abortions, including medication-induced ones. No longer would the issue be the province of state policymakers and voters, where the Supreme Court left it with its Dobbs decision.

The hard-line stance of the ultra-progressive left and the far right could scarcely be more different, except for one thing: Both imagine aggressive action by the federal government at the expense of state and local government autonomy. It’s as if both sides bought the same playbook — and then used it to aim at different goalposts.

The contrast with the moderate-center wings of both parties couldn’t be greater. Harvard’s Stephen Goldsmith and the American Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Streeter, for example, have written a fascinating plan for “aspirational conservatism.” They are urging Republicans to embrace “individual initiative while also updating safety net programs to help individuals and families when they falter.” There’s no talk here of sunsetting Social Security and Medicare.

Goldsmith and Streeter propose police reform through community policing. Perhaps most important, they argue for a “return to a robust form of federalism wherever possible.” Imposing socially conservative values on states and localities, they wrote, “undermines fundamental conservative principles and risks a backlash from voters.”

This is traditional Republicanism from the 1970s, with a new twist for the 2020s. For the party’s far right, however, it suffers from its lack of clear prescription or for a hammer to drive it throughout the country.

No one captures the views of the center-left better than Joe Biden, who continues to be tugged leftward by progressives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. Biden is an apostle of the old-time Democratic religion, advocating for spending more money for everything from infrastructure to student debt relief, but that’s not enough for the progressive left.

So, especially on issues affecting state and local governments, the run-up to the 2024 presidential campaign really involves four parties, not two. There is the far right and the progressive left, both of which argue for a stronger role for the federal government in enforcing their views on the whole country. They might differ on the objectives, but their core strategy is surprisingly similar.

Then there are the center-left Democrats (like Biden) and center-right Republicans (like Goldsmith and Streeter). Biden takes a budget-based approach with the action devolved to state and local governments in many areas. Goldsmith and Streeter are free-market advocates for devolved decision-making.

This four-way battle will define what the next 18 months will look like: centralized action to drive policy across all the states with uniformity, or decentralized action to strengthen the hands of state and local governments with lots of variation. That means this election is shaping up to be a fascinating one — and that its result will answer big questions about the future of both conservatism and liberalism in America.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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