Point/Counterpoint: Is DeSantis the GOP’s Future?

Ron DeSantis

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Is he the next presidential nominee, or a passing political phase?

I lived in Miami in the mid-’80s when I worked as a local news reporter. Now that I’m in my sixties, I also know a lot of people who have retired to the Sunshine State, which made me wonder about the 59% of Floridians who support Ron DeSantis. The 44-year-old governor seems to elicit very strong feelings —both positive and negative — so I asked two longtime residents to write an essay conveying their thoughts. One a former congressman from the Gulf Coast and another, a longtime political reporter I worked with at WTVJ. Here are their views on the man who’s often mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate.

DeSantis’ Pandemic Policies Saved Florida

When recently reading about the closure of a Whole Foods store in downtown San Francisco due to issues surrounding employee safety, I was reminded of the devastating COVID policies implemented by Democratic-controlled states and cities all over our country. Three years later, countless children, families, and businesses are still paying the costs of that misgovernment, in the form of learning regression in schools, out-of-control crime, and bankruptcies. Many on the left insisted on keeping everything closed with the justification of saving lives. Now Democratic communities are suffering as businesses shutter and people flee to the safety — and freedom — of states like Florida. 

No matter your opinion of Ron DeSantis, Florida became the place to live, work, and play during the pandemic. On top of the standard offerings of low taxes and warm weather, DeSantis made clear that canceling life for everyone was not an option in the state — that the lives of the vulnerable could be protected without destroying the livelihoods of everyone else. Of course, Florida suffered death and illness just like every other state in the country. While every life lost calls for mourning, the state’s rate of infection and death did not differ significantly from those of other states, despite dire and alarmist warnings from federal officials and many medical experts. And today, Floridians are not mourning the death of their urban communities or the flight of capital, jobs, opportunity, and hope.

If a record and results were the most important factors in determining candidate success, DeSantis would easily be leading Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and every other presidential aspirant.

In reaction to DeSantis’ pandemic policies, Democrats and many in the media offered sharp criticisms, even referring to him as “DeathSantis.” Despite that, the Governor pressed forward undeterred, and continued welcoming new Floridians, more visitors, and capital. The overreactions from the left only made him stronger and more credible with swing voters — and even some Democrats. 

Perhaps the most powerful move made by the Governor was keeping Florida’s public schools open for in-person instruction for the entire 2020-2021 school year. DeSantis stood up to labor unions and liberal activists pressuring schools nationwide to remain closed, leaving children and families at the mercy of inadequate remote learning. In fact, remote-learning policies had the most devastating consequences for low-income students, who lacked the technological resources, parental supervision, and in many cases, the physical space to thrive. I can’t help but think of the immigrant children who were English language learners whose parents couldn’t work from home. Or the mother of three children under the age of nine, who was forced to play the role of kindergarten, second, and third grade teacher every single day. 

These decisions to open up the state and to keep it open despite untold pressures benefitted the hardest-working Floridians. Restaurant workers and others in the hospitality industry were able to continue earning tips to supplement their income. Those looking to advance and grow in their jobs were not relegated to sitting at home, waiting for the next direct deposit from the federal government. Moreover, the mood in Florida was not one of fear and despair: The Governor’s leadership made people feel like the pandemic didn’t have to dominate their daily lives. 

So it isn’t surprising that DeSantis was able to build such an impressive coalition to secure his reelection, with a nearly 60 percent of the vote in a state known for close races. The red wave of 2022 never materialized, except in Florida. DeSantis fairly claims credit for this: He earned it by charting his own course at a time when groupthink had overtaken the country. He immediately rose to national prominence and overtook Donald Trump as the leading GOP candidate in some state and national polls. 

Fast forward five months and DeSantis is in a deepening political rut. Why? Because he’s no longer serving as the consensus-building governor that Floridians got to know throughout 2019. He is no longer the independent-minded leader the country discovered during the pandemic. DeSantis is doing his best Donald Trump imitation and failing miserably at it — and running against someone while transparently emulating them is a strategy destined to fail. 

In trying to religiously follow the Trump playbook, DeSantis is stumbling and fumbling. His once-interesting war with Disney is coming across as petty and vindictive. His obsession with culture wars is getting old and now, on issues like abortion and guns, DeSantis has embraced positions out of the mainstream which make him a less viable general election candidate. 

All of the Governor’s important work and leadership during the pandemic is going to waste (politically), and his missteps have improved the prospects of his former ally, Donald Trump, in the Republican primary. Whether DeSantis can recover remains to be seen. If he cannot, we need a next-generation Republican leader to address the serious challenges our nation faces. 

As Joe Biden and Donald Trump are again the two leading candidates for President, in order to be successful, DeSantis (and other Republicans running) must make a compelling case for change. After all, no other two candidates are more representative of the status quo in politics than the current and former presidents. Rising generations of Americans are desperate for a political renaissance — for new leaders who they can relate to and who can see beyond today’s horizon. The two options on the table belong to yesterday and offer none of the above. If DeSantis is to convince the next electorate he can deliver for them, he’ll have to abandon the politics of pettiness, divisiveness, and cheap imitation which have plagued our country for far too long. 

-Carlos Curbelo, who represented the 26th district of Florida in Congress from 2015 to 2019, is now principal of the Vocero public affairs firm

Ron De Santis’ Not-So-Free State Of Florida

Ron DeSantis is not a guy you want to have a beer with. 

Not unless you’re willing to listen to him blather on about the “free state of Florida” (for which he claims full credit), where “woke goes to die.” It’s an empty campaign shtick he repeats ad nauseam wherever he goes.  

Lately he’s been going to states with early primaries promoting his platitudinous memoir, The Courage to be Free. And at state agency expense, he recently toured Japan, South Korea, Israel and the U.K. to gain some foreign policy cred. In Japan, he met with the prime minister and when a reporter asked if his sharp drop in the polls was concerning, he replied with a goofy grin, “I am not a candidate” — his head bobbing around cryptically — “so we’ll see if and when that happens.” It will happen now that the Florida Legislature has adjourned. 

Ron is not a barrel of laughs. Or even a single laugh. He’s certainly smart (Yale undergrad, Harvard Law) but he’s not charming. Or personable. Or likable. In fact, he’s shown himself to be mean-spirited and vindictive. One telling example:  When the 9-member Broward County School Board disagreed with his masking policy — they wanted kids to continue to mask up at school — he docked their pay, suspended the liberals and appointed Republican fill-ins. The most Democratic county in the state suddenly had a GOP-majority school board.  And a corollary: When Fort Lauderdale was recently drenched by 26 inches of rain and huge portions of the city were under water, DeSantis never called, commiserated or came down for a look-see. 

The most notable example of DeSantis’ revenge politics is his ongoing feud with Disney. After the Don’t Say Gay bill (formally the Parental Rights in Education act) had passed the GOP-dominated Legislature (so full of DeSantis toadies that I call it Toad Hall), Disney’s then-CEO issued a critical statement saying the bill offended their corporate values and their many gay employees. 

DeSantis threw a hissy fit and conspired to destroy the special taxing and governmental district that Florida created in 1967 to lure Disney to Florida. Disney is the state’s largest employer and one of its biggest taxpayers; it also hands out millions in campaign contributions to the governor and state lawmakers. Even so, just voicing disagreement with the governor was too much for Gov. Ron to bear. He began to dismantle the Reedy Creek Improvement District — the unique self-governing district that oversees Disney World’s governmental services — and Disney’s ability to run their world-famous theme park.

But Disney got the last laugh by quietly doing a legal end-run around DeSantis’ hand-picked successor board. DeSantis still won’t let it go even though many GOP business execs — raised on Bugs Bunny and free enterprise — think Ron should back off. He won’t. His super PAC is called Never Back Down. And now Disney has sued DeSantis alleging “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” Which it is.

I met DeSantis in 2018 when he was the underdog Republican candidate for governor. I was the senior political reporter at Channel 10 in Miami and the founding moderator of its Sunday morning political discussion show, This Week in South Florida. DeSantis was a guest a few times and impressed me as bright, if extremely conservative. Ask him about his philosophy of government and you’d get a disquisition on The Federalist Papers. He gave no hint of the autocrat he would become.

After squeaking into office by just 33,000 votes, DeSantis moved to the political middle. He went all in on Everglades restoration — and is still there. He granted clemency to the Groveland Four, a quartet of young black men wrongfully convicted in 1949 of raping a white woman. DeSantis also visited Israel and has spoken out against antisemitism. At the beginning of the pandemic, he urged Floridians at risk to get vaccinated and sent National Guard teams into nursing homes and ACLFs to administer shots. When it came to Covid, DeSantis was also giving signs he would govern from the center right. Oh, how wrong we were. More than 87,000 Floridians have died from Covid and I’ve never once heard the governor express condolences to their families or remorse for the downside of his anti-mask, open-for-business policy.

Ron DeSantis has become a power-hungry autocrat, pushing Florida farther and farther to the right. He’s made the culture wars his signature issue. He championed a bill cracking down on public protests after the George Floyd murder; a driver caught up in a street demonstration can now plow through the crowd with impunity. Critical race theory was banned from public schools even though it wasn’t being taught. K-8 teachers are forbidden from teaching about sexual orientation or sexual identity. 

He signed a six-week abortion bill in a closed ceremony at 11 p.m. He asked for and got a permitless carry law that lets almost anyone strap on a gun without any training or licensing. To prove his hardline on immigration, he had the state fly 49 Venezuelan and other migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. And then abandoned them.

This is the man who aspires to be President and will soon announce his candidacy. The campaign has had a few hiccups so far: Some major donors have taken a time-out because of his rigid culture wars agenda and Draconian abortion law. They also complain that in person, DeSantis is cold and impersonal. “I think he’s got a problem with personal relationships, generally,” says Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. A former Congressman who sat next to DeSantis for two years on a House Foreign Affairs committee says DeSantis never even said hello. “I think he’s an asshole,” former Rep. Charles Trott told Politico, “I don’t think he cares about people.”

Gov. DeSantis scored a remarkable win last November, crushing a tired Democratic opponent by 19 points. Now he’s marketing himself as the most electable GOP candidate — Trump without the bombast. Younger (44), smarter, and more competent. But DeSantis is, at his core, a mean-spirited guy. He can raise money and attract supporters, but he doesn’t give voters that jolt of excitement and hope, the existential frisson that great politicians can give. 

It’s not easy living in Gov. DeSantis’ “free state of Florida,” with its six-week abortion ban and restrictions on teaching kids about race and sexual orientation. Where books are easily banned from schools and vouchers worth $8,000 are available to almost any student, even those from wealthy families. The state where it only takes eight jurors for the death penalty.  The state where universities are forbidden to teach about diversity, equity, and inclusion because they’re too “woke.”  

DeSantis has been successful at home pushing his culture war agenda, but I doubt it’ll play as well in a nationwide campaign. It’s not what voters want to hear about at, say, the big Steak Fry in Iowa. Retail politics is not the governor’s long suit. 

The Free State of Florida? Sure it is, as long as you agree with Ron DeSantis.

-Michael Putney reported on politics and government for 33 years at WPLG-Channel 10 Miami-Fort Lauderdale. He was also a reporter and op-ed columnist for the Miami Herald