The Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government

Old political orthodoxies are being scrambled by a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, the influence of former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE and the deep current of polarization tearing through the nation.

One prime example, which came into focus last week, centers on Republicans, private business and the role of government.

Texas Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottSunday shows preview: Multiple states detect cases of the omicron variant Hillicon Valley —TSA to strengthen rail sector cybersecurity When politics trump workers' health, we know who gets burned MORE (R) issued an executive order Monday banning vaccine mandates in his state, including by private entities.

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Abbott’s action cut across the wishes of numerous corporations in his state who had issued, or were planning, such mandates. 

Some major corporations with Texas headquarters, including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, are pressing ahead with their mandate plans, putting themselves on collision course with the governor.

But the bigger point is Abbott’s break with the traditional conservative belief that government should have a very limited role in regulating business. 

Some corporations want a mandate; he is using the power of government to tell them they can’t have one.

High-profile Republicans had already become more willing to be critical of big business, especially as corporations have taken overtly political positions on social issues. 

Back in May, amid a furor over new voting laws in Georgia, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown MORE (R-Texas) told this column that Democrats had sought to “weaponize” the corporate world and that some CEOs had been willing to “enlist their companies in the political agenda of today’s Democratic Party.”

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Meanwhile, intra-conservative debates about the reach of government have also gone beyond the corporate world into other areas, such as education.

Conservatives in the recent past generally supported devolving as much power as possible to local school boards, which they saw as a counterweight to the heavy hand of centralized government.

But as some school boards have moved to impose mask and vaccine requirements in response to the pandemic, they have found themselves in the crosshairs of the right. Most notably, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe Memo: Media obsess over Trump's past as he eyes comeback DeSantis proposes civilian Florida State Guard military force he would control Haley hits the stump in South Carolina MORE (R) has been engaged in a protracted battle to stop schools in his state from imposing mandates.

Abbott, Cruz and DeSantis are all considered possible presidential contenders in 2024, where they could be vying for the presidential nomination of a Republican Party where former President Trump still holds enormous sway. Trump favored a bombastic populism that often put him at odds with GOP orthodoxy on topics such as free trade.

Abbott portrayed his mandate ban as a direct challenge to President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE’s decision, announced last month, to pursue vaccine mandates or testing requirements for businesses with 100 employees or more. The text of Abbott’s executive order referred to Biden “bullying many private entities into imposing COVID-19 mandates.”

His decision drew a counterpunch from White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiUS expected to announce diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics soon: report Joe Biden: The Brian Williams presidency Biden plan for free at-home tests faces hurdles MORE who accused him of making a choice “against all public health information” but “perhaps in the interest of your own politics.”

Some Republicans acknowledge there has been a big shift.

“It’s not a conservatism rooted in a government philosophy,” said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist who served as a senior adviser to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyUS expected to announce diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics soon: report GOP anger with Fauci rises No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline MORE. “It is more cultural in the sense of outrage politics, left-versus-right, us-versus-them. It is not about whether government is going to be involved. It is more along the lines of: ‘Government is going to be involved. Who is going to get the spoils of government?’”

On the left, there is long-standing skepticism about whether the GOP really has any consistent principle at all about the appropriate role of government.

At the same time as the Texas governor is purporting to be standing up for individuals who want to resist vaccine mandates, for example, his GOP-dominated state has also passed a hugely controversial law that amounts to a near-total ban on abortion — something which most Democrats see as an affront to personal choice.

Meanwhile, independent experts note that conservatives have often taken rather flexible views on the appropriate role of government.

“Conservatives have been open to government action even though their rhetoric presents themselves as being anti-government,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It is more about priorities. When it comes to national security or spending on defense or tax subsidies for business, they have been more than happy for government to take a role.”

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Among conservatives supportive of the kinds of stances taken by Abbott and DeSantis, however, there is a much different view. They believe conservatives are simply trying to act as a corrective to an excessively aggressive Biden administration and a corporate world overly eager to prove its “wokeness.”

“It’s about righting wrongs, it is about creating an equilibrium,” said Brad Blakeman, who served in former President George W. Bush’s White House. “Businesses should be engaged in business not in social engineering. If you are in the business of selling airplane tickets, sell airplane tickets. If you are in the business of selling cars, sell cars.”

Blakeman also pointed out, on the education question, that there has been an apparent upsurge in more conservative-leaning parents getting involved in their local school districts — something that he saw as a welcome “empowerment” of parents, even as it has led to some angry clashes.

Above it all, though, is the reality of a Republican Party where Trump looms large — not just as a past president and a possible 2024 contender, but as the practitioner of a scorched-earth brand of politics, in which there are only really two sides: for us or against us.

“You just can’t put Trump aside,” said Madden. “He has upped the outrage quotient of populist politics and he is going to define the party’s profile — and its approach to these big policy fights and cultural fissures — for the next 20 years.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.