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Ron DeSantis and Bernie Sanders agree on one thing

Shrinking government power isn't on the agenda for either Democrats or Republicans.
Photo illustration: Greg Abbott, Joe Biden speaking in front of the White House, the Capitol dome and Ron DeSantis.
"Small government" is obsolete in 2021.MSNBC / Getty Images

“The era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton declared in his 1996 State of the Union address.

There was no question about that at the time. Clinton was banking on triangulation — co-opting the GOP’s policy ideas to win over its voters — to win re-election that fall. After years of hearing about Reagan Republicans’ grip on the suburbs and the GOP takeover of the House in 1994, Democrats had decided “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” The result was two parties both in favor of shrinking the federal government and leaning into a more laissez-faire neoliberalism.

Twenty-five years later, that time is over. Shrinking the size and scope of government is no longer a driving force in either party. What we see instead are two very different visions of the role of government but no real desire from either side to curtail its influence. Republicans are increasingly embracing authoritarianism over libertarianism, even as they frame it as “freedom”; Democrats have stopped running away from the “tax and spend” criticism that Clinton embraced.

It’s not that big a surprise to see this shift on the Republican side of the aisle. The GOP has had a loose commitment to limited government over the years, in terms of both raw power and areas of influence. On an ideological level, the anti-regulatory spirit embedded in the party has always clashed with the social conservative branch’s need to control certain people’s bodies and behavior through anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ policies.

And while President Ronald Reagan campaigned on slashing spending through cutting the government’s “allowance,” the resulting tax cuts didn’t slow a massive increase in federal spending. We saw the same under Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Ballooning deficits undercut promises of reduced government.

The GOP has had a loose commitment to limited government over the years.

Trump didn’t even pay lip service to limiting the federal government’s power and scope. But the party went along with him, even though his flashes of authoritarianism are diametrically opposed to the libertarian impulse once prevalent in the more “serious” wing of the GOP.

Today, the governors vying for Trump’s supporters have been fine with using whatever means possible to assert similar auras of authority. Gov. Greg Abbott has consolidated power in Texas by riding roughshod over city and county elected officials and countering what had once been party dogma: Local governments produce better outcomes. Abbott’s latest executive order, issued Thursday, bars any level of government in the state from mandating Covid vaccinations, despite the Pfizer vaccine’s recent FDA approval.

Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent weeks ordering school districts not to mandate masks for students. (That effort appears to be backfiring as school boards, cities and counties call his bluff.)

What really makes this latest shift from small government so striking is the GOP’s newfound desire to regulate the behavior of private businesses. After decades of devotion to the free market, Republicans recently began targeting what they consider symbolically “woke” actions by major corporations. Attempts by Abbott and DeSantis to ban cruise lines from requiring vaccinations for their passengers show that this interventionism extends to dictating corporations’ more substantive actions.

Across the aisle, Democrats are finally aggressively touting major projects and investments after years of running scared from Republican attacks on their “tax and spend” policies and alleged “socialism.” President Joe Biden surprised most of the Washington establishment when he championed nearly $4 trillion in proposed new spending. By backing that vision, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have grounded it firmly in the mainstream of Democratic politics.

Democrats are finally aggressively touting major projects and investments after years of running scared from Republican attacks on their “tax and spend” policies and alleged “socialism.”

But give credit to the rising clout of progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Sanders — once considered a gadfly, now the chair of the Senate Budget Committee — plans to spend the next weeks barnstorming GOP territory to gin up support for the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that Democrats are preparing for next month.

This dedication to big government isn’t a fait accompli in either party. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem came out in an Instagram post Tuesday against a bill that would ban employers from mandating shots for their employees, calling it “not conservative” and “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine opposes a similar bill in his state — but the idea is still popular among the anti-vaccine crowd that DeSantis and Abbott are trying to capture.

And as I wrote Tuesday, some moderate Democrats in the House and the Senate are balking at the price tag of the reconciliation bill, despite the popularity of the proposed spending among voters. They’re likely to win some concessions — which will dull the impact of some of the affected programs — but the vast majority of projects will be at least partly funded.

From those Democrats, one hears echoes of the political consultants who convinced Clinton that stealing Republican voters was more important than actual liberal achievements. But we’re a long way from 1996 — the momentum has swung toward active governance, not elected officials who sit on the sidelines. And with one party eager to expand government assistance and the other filled with leaders eager to assert their dominance, don’t expect to hear either speak sincerely about small government any time soon.