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Have Conservatives Turned into Hamiltonians?

As the presidential campaign gets underway, some Republicans are pledging to wield federal power to nationalize their states’ policies. It’s an approach that seems at odds with the party’s history.

"Make America Florida" flag
A “Make America Florida” flag for sale on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign website.
The website for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential run has a huge selection of merchandise, from T-shirts to can coolers — and, of course, monogrammed caps, to compete with his biggest Republican rival’s. They all carry DeSantis’ campaign theme: “Make America Florida.”

He points to his record, which he says Donald Trump can’t match. He says he wants to win the presidency so he can transform his Florida initiatives into national policy, from banning abortion to rooting out “woke” education in the schools. As he puts it in his campaign’s biggest punch line, “Florida is the place where woke goes to die.”

In his January inaugural address, DeSantis attacked the federal government as “floundering,” creating barriers to Florida’s success — and, by extension, the nation’s as well. What better way to fix that than by winning the presidency?

But this raises a huge question: Can a presidential candidate build a national campaign based on transforming state-based ideas into national policies? Can a candidate really be a conservative if he wants to centralize policy in Washington?

He’s not alone. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina says he’ll have schoolchildren kneeling in prayer and the schools “focusing on educating instead of indoctrinating.” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, opposes abortion rights.

So we have supposedly small-government, decentralizing conservatives making the case for a big federal role in advancing their goals, especially on social policy. At the country’s founding, Alexander Hamilton made the strongest case for centralized governance. Have conservatives become Hamiltonians?

It wouldn’t be the first time our major parties have changed directions. Today’s Democrats trace their lineage to the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These founders created a party that focused on small central government with most power in the hands of the states. Republicans, on the other hand, date their party from an 1854 meeting in a small schoolhouse in Ripon, Wis., where the party’s founders organized a strong anti-slavery movement that called on stronger centralized power to stop its expansion.

The tables turned with the New Deal. Herbert Hoover had refused to allow the federal government to grow in response to the Depression, while Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned to use the government’s muscle to pull the country out of the economic collapse. The Democrats since have been the party of big government, and the Republicans have argued to keep government small. But that’s not quite the way things look now.

In fact, there are three big questions.

Ronald Reagan captured the spirit of modern conservatism when he famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.’” Would Reagan think a top-down strategy to decide social policy in Washington is truly conservative?

In historical terms, many of today’s Republican candidates are identifying issues that resonate with their base, arguing that they’ve had great success in pursuing them as governors, and campaigning to make their positions the law of the land. The ideas might have surfaced on the right, but the tactics for advancing them are anything but conservative.

This is a natural byproduct of last year’s Dobbs decision. In National Review, the magazine’s online editor, Philip Klein, wrote, “Mark your calendars: June 24, 2022 — the day of the greatest victory in the history of the conservative movement.” Since the Supreme Court found that there was no constitutional right to an abortion and tossed the issue back to the states, 14 of them already have moved to ban most abortions. In just 12 months, there’s been a dizzying shift. We’ve gone from a constitutionally guaranteed right to decisions that devolved to the states to a new movement to re-nationalize policy, this time to make an abortion ban national.

Second, what’s the difference between these Republican candidates and Democratic governors like California’s Gavin Newsom who are shaping national policy from their state capitols? For example, in 2022 the Environmental Protection Agency granted California its latest waiver to create tougher air quality standards than the federal regulations required for greenhouse gas emissions and for low-emission and zero-emission vehicles, among more than a hundred waivers that EPA has granted the state since 1968. Seventeen other states and the District of Columbia have followed California’s lead, adopting some or all of its regulations as their own.

If they can’t get new federal legislation or regulations, they’re using waiver authority to remake policy to their liking. Earlier this year, EPA granted California’s request for another waiver, to ban diesel-burning trucks. Six other states said they would adopt the state’s standards. Together, they account for one-fifth of the nation’s population. So from a very different point of view, leaders from the left are pursuing their own strategy for reshaping federal policy from the bottom up.

Third, which of these strategies reflect which of the nation’s founders? Republicans had long been small-government conservatives who wanted to devolve big decisions back to the states. That was Jefferson’s position, at least until he became president and discovered he could use his power to double the country’s size through the Louisiana Purchase. He was a small-government conservative who converted quickly to a far more centralized Hamiltonian position. That sounds very much like the current crop of Republican presidential candidates.

Democrats, on the other hand, have been big-government Hamiltonians since Roosevelt’s New Deal. But with most of the paths of federal expansion closed down by partisan gridlock, they have become Jeffersonians since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, with a commitment to making policy at the state level.

Toward the end of the first act of the musical Hamilton, Lafayette and Hamilton join in celebrating the new nation’s victory over the British at the Battle of Yorktown by singing about “the world turned upside down.” That song builds on an old English ballad with the same title, which folklore says the British band played as Lord Cornwallis surrendered:

One version of the ballad had these lyrics:

If buttercups buzz'd after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

When it comes to how each party is setting up its run for the White House, the world truly has turned upside down. In part, that’s because each party has, at its core, always been more pragmatic than doctrinaire, and each party is calculating what it will take to win (or at least win its base). But, in the most interesting turn, conservatives have become big-government Hamiltonians. They might not really see the profound irony at work.

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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