Earlier this week, Florida governor and Republican presidential contender Ron DeSantis announced his campaign’s new “Declaration of Economic Independence.” This policy blueprint might also have been titled a “Declaration of an Attempted Economic Synthesis,” since it illustrates how some Republicans are attempting to incorporate the policy and political disruption of the past decade into a new governing configuration.
The framing of DeSantis’s Declaration taps into populist rhetorical themes. It blames the nation’s supposed decline on a failed “ruling class.” It pledges to break with “Wall Street and big corporations who don’t have your interests front and center.” It proclaims independence from certain policies (“profligate federal spending” and “destructive policies like the Green New Deal”). It particularly stresses the need for independence from certain agents: “failed elites,” the “Chinese Community Party,” “central planners, and “progressive corporations.” In a rhetorical uppercut, the document says that the “goal of our declaration of economic independence is simple: We win. They lose.”
But this Declaration isn’t just about rhetoric. The DeSantis campaign is decisively breaking with the orthodoxies of the George W. Bush years. The document argues against expanded trade with China: “America has seen its industrial base hollowed out, developed a dangerous dependence on Chinese supply chains, and witnessed the exposure of American companies to a hostile security apparatus.” As with many other “realignment”-oriented documents, the Declaration cites both economic and geopolitical reasons for reconfiguring the trade relationship with the PRC. DeSantis seeks to “end China’s preferential trade status” and pledges to put limits on the sharing of technology with the PRC as well as to encourage the repatriation of American capital from Beijing.
Unlike many press accounts that portray immigration as only a cultural issue, DeSantis bundles immigration into a broader economic portfolio. He stresses the goal of creating a “fair labor market” by tightening migration rates: “securing the border, enforcing our laws, eliminating chain migration and the diversity visa lottery, and limiting unskilled immigration.”
On education, DeSantis hits some vintage Republican themes—on the importance of school choice and emphasizing the importance of employment for education. But he also departs from the college-for-all model by calling for expanded vocational education, which has gained new interest on the reformist right. Notably, he also aims to make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy. (This marks a striking contrast with Bush, who signed a bill further limiting the ability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy, a bill that then-Senator Joe Biden also supported.)
While much of DeSantis’s campaign so far has been characterized by culture-war themes, the Declaration of Economic Independence relegates those issues to more of a supporting role. It pushes back against the use of Environmental, Social, and Governance Standards in big business and assails “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs.” Tapping into themes of decentralization, DeSantis says he will “support community and regional banks” and move some federal agencies out of the Washington, DC area.
On energy, he draws a clear contrast with the Biden administration by seeking to expand domestic energy production across the spectrum and opposing federal efforts to “force people to buy electric vehicles.” And he proposes reforms to corporate taxes (on how business expenses are treated, for instance) and the financial incentives of the tax system.
The Declaration also sounds some Tea Party themes. It laments “wasteful federal spending” and the “waste, fraud, and abuse” within the federal budget. It also aims to mandate “work requirements for welfare programs.”
All this sketches a broad outline of a possible economic strategy: loosen some domestic regulations to ensure growth, revise financial incentives to promote longer-term investment, tighten the labor market to expand economic access to that growth, reduce energy costs, and encourage more diverse pathways to success. This message recognizes that economic growth remains vital for Republican voters and the American electorate as a whole.
Digging into the details, though, suggests further policy complications. Could expanding child tax credits for working-class families be part of a broader pro-family policy? With the United States and China so closely economically intertwined, any major change to their trading relationship could create a wide range of knock-on effects. Such a program of reform would be walking a diplomatic and economic highwire. Over the long term, the largest drivers of federal spending remain entitlement programs, so any effort to change the trajectory of the federal debt will have to involve reforms to those programs—another politically treacherous project. While DeSantis explicitly commits to limiting “unskilled migration,” his blueprint is silent on “skilled” migration (often a shorthand for those with college degrees or significant training). By their very complexity, these details go far beyond the scope of a campaign document, but they remain important as Republicans try to craft a winning framework.
Recent polling from the New York Times reveals some of the policy tensions within the GOP coalition at the moment. Republican primary voters prefer a candidate “who says that the government should stay out of deciding what corporations can support” to one who “promises to fight corporations that promote ‘woke’ left ideology” by 52 percent to 38 percent. As Eric Kaufmann has observed, Republicans retain a strong libertarian streak, even as they criticize progressive identity politics. This suggests that Republicans might find an electoral incentive to emphasize themes of freedom and equality in their critiques of “wokeness.”
Other parts of the Times poll show the range of impulses within the GOP coalition. Forty-seven percent of voters support a candidate who would “protect workers by raising tariffs on imports,” while 43 percent would instead prefer a candidate who “promises to grow business by cutting taxes on corporations.” Theoretically, at least, it would be possible to do both, and Republicans in the past have done both. Calvin Coolidge was both a protectionist and a tax-cutter. Tax cuts continue to appeal to many Republicans, and political pressures may suggest why DeSantis’s Declaration highlights both trade and tax reform.
Polling also indicates a significant political hurdle for entitlement reform: by 30 points (59 percent to 29 percent), Republican primary voters think that “keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are” is more important than “taking steps to reduce the budget deficit.” This preference for the entitlement status quo within the Republican Party mirrors broad public sentiment and may suggest that changes to federal entitlements will require bipartisan buy-in. Structural changes become more sustainable and electorally palatable when they garner support from both sides of the aisle.
To some extent, the Declaration of Economic Independence could be seen as part of a pivot for the DeSantis campaign toward a more expansive political message. History suggests that political insurgents need a compelling and comprehensive vision to stand a chance of knocking off a frontrunner. But even outside the context of the Trump / DeSantis battle, the Declaration suggests a Republican Party attempting to respond to a changed policy and political landscape.
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