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Thirsty Ron
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Thirsty Ron

You’re not mad at him. You’re mad at the party.

Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. during the World Values Network's presidential candidate series at the Glasshouse on July 25, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis has been caught behaving like Ron DeSantis, and Ron DeSantis fans are beside themselves about it.

On Wednesday he sat for an interview with Clay Travis of OutKick, reminding us that the campaign’s alleged pivot to mainstream media remains a work in progress. OutKick is a populist outfit, initially a scourge of the sports media establishment, later an antagonist of the political establishment, more recently an enemy of the, er, scientific establishment. Travis spent the first year of the pandemic repeatedly assuring his many right-wing fans that the U.S. was at or near herd immunity, predicting in February 2021 that “COVID will be over by the end of April.” That summer the Delta wave arrived and laid waste to the country. Ron DeSantis’ Florida bore the brunt.

Any Republican politician speaking to Travis and his audience would understand that questions touching on the pandemic and vaccines need to be handled … artfully, especially if that politician is Ron DeSantis. The governor’s thirst for populist approval is unquenchable; OutKick is the last place you’d find him daring to deliver hard truths about COVID.

So when Travis asked whether he’d consider putting America’s most notorious vaccine skeptic on the GOP ticket—an increasingly hot topic on the right—the thirstiest Republican in all the land answered artfully. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is far too liberal across the policy spectrum to be chosen as vice president, DeSantis said, hopefully correctly.

But he did have a few Cabinet positions in mind.

Reaction among many DeSantis fans was grim, for different reasons.

Some grumbled about the undue media attention being lavished upon a crank like Kennedy, neglecting to mention that most of that attention is coming from populist-friendly right-wing media like OutKick and Fox News. As the clip of DeSantis and Travis was coursing through political media on Wednesday afternoon, in fact, Greg Gutfeld was telling Fox viewers that he believes RFK would win the presidency as a third-party candidate.

Other supporters half-heartedly rode to DeSantis’ defense by noting that he didn’t say he’d put Kennedy in charge of the FDA and CDC, only that he would “sic” him on them. That’s true, but in context I don’t know what else “sic” could mean; clearly the governor is imagining some sort of official appointment per his reference to how Kennedy might “serve.” Either way, to quibble about language is to miss the point. DeSantis would let an infamous crank ride herd on America’s scientific bureaucracy somehow, laying the groundwork for a public health catastrophe if the country were to face some new medical crisis in the years ahead.

For traditional conservatives in the governor’s camp, however, there was no spinning his enthusiasm for Kennedy. It was “flat-out insanity,” “embarrassingly bad,” an “own goal” indicating that DeSantis’ political instincts had deteriorated. There were pleas for him to stop “alienating the voters he needs” and to launch a “normie insurgency” before his candidacy collapses under its own populist weight.

To which I reply: It is very late in the day for so many to be shocked—shocked to find—gambling going on in this casino.

I suspect that if DeSantis led Donald Trump by 10 points instead of trailing him by 30, the outrage among his fans at yesterday’s endorsement of RFK Jr. would have been quite muted. Do you know how I know?

Because DeSantis has been pandering to anti-vaxxers for years and the outrage among his fans to this point has been quite muted.

Not nonexistent, but decidedly muted. You’ll search hard to find a conservative who was once Ready for Ron but has since abandoned him in the belief that he’s unfit for office due to his long, unbearably cynical, possibly deadly populist pandering on COVID vaccines.

Last week the New York Times tracked DeSantis’ evolution on the subject. He began as an outspoken proponent of vaccination for senior citizens—too outspoken to suit some of his grassroots admirers, it turned out. In an article dated two years ago yesterday, Politico noted that whispers had been heard among anti-vax MAGA voters about DeSantis being a “sellout.” Seeing a threat to his 2024 presidential strategy, the governor abruptly changed course and began questioning the utility of vaccines for those under 65. The Times recounts what happened next:

While Florida was an early leader in the share of over-65 residents who were vaccinated, it had fallen to the middle of the pack by the end of July 2021. When it came to younger residents, Florida lagged behind the national average in every age group.

That left the state particularly vulnerable when the Delta variant hit that month. Floridians died at a higher rate, adjusted for age, than residents of almost any other state during the Delta wave, according to the Times analysis. With less than 7 percent of the nation’s population, Florida accounted for 14 percent of deaths between the start of July and the end of October.

Of the 23,000 Floridians who died, 9,000 were younger than 65. Despite the governor’s insistence at the time that “our entire vulnerable population has basically been vaccinated,” a vast majority of the 23,000 were either unvaccinated or had not yet completed the two-dose regimen.

More people died of COVID in Florida after the vaccines became available than before, the paper notes. That wasn’t true of America as a whole.

I’ve written before about the history of DeSantis’ turn on vaccines and won’t rehash it again here. It should suffice to note that by the fall of 2021 he was participating in photo ops like this …

… and appointing Dr. Joseph Ladapo as Florida’s surgeon general. Given Ladapo’s thinking on vaccines and his alleged doctoring of studies to exaggerate the health risk of vaccination, I don’t understand the umbrage taken by DeSantis fans at him wanting to elevate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to a position of medical influence. He’s already proven in Florida that he’s willing to risk public health for the sake of ingratiating himself to anti-vax Republicans. If you’re on Team Ron, presumably you made peace with that long ago.

So long as DeSantis seemed likely to threaten Trump for the nomination, his vaccine nonsense could be waved away—even, to a lesser degree, by reluctant supporters like me. Everyone understood his strategic logic: To pry cultish MAGA voters away from their hero, the governor would need to exploit cultural divisions between Trump and his base. Vaccines were an obvious wedge opportunity, pitting the man responsible for Operation Warp Speed against a populist cohort that preferred to risk its own lives than take health advice from the expert class. It was cynical to the point of nihilism to use that wedge but conservative supporters of Thirsty Ron tolerated it in the hope that his thirstiness would ultimately end Trump’s reign of terror.

Until yesterday, when the governor’s praise for RFK led many to suddenly and very belatedly conclude that it’s bad politics. 

Is it? If it’s bad politics, why have so few of DeSantis’ Republican opponents attacked him for it?

Donald Trump hasn’t said a word about the governor’s vision of Kennedy leading the CDC despite the fact that on a typical day he can’t get through three sentences without ripping the guy, even for something as petty as how he pronounces his name. I can’t recall a single case of Team Trump angrily blasting away at DeSantis for doubting the efficacy of the former president’s great big beautiful mRNA vaccines, in fact, despite Team Thirsty’s dogged attempts to bait them into engaging on it. The closest Trump’s camp has come to criticizing him on the subject is by occasionally highlighting the fact that DeSantis enthusiastically endorsed vaccination during the spring of 2021.

Rather than fault the governor for being anti-vax, in other words, Team Trump recognizes that they can do more damage to him in a Republican primary by accusing him of being a closet pro-vaxxer.

Trump isn’t alone in his silence. As of Thursday afternoon, Tim Scott hadn’t complained about DeSantis’ admiration for RFK. Neither had Nikki Haley, who took a veiled jab at the governor on Wednesday night not for wanting to put a kook in charge of the federal health bureaucracy but for not wanting to fly commercial.

The only candidate willing to say something disapproving of DeSantis’ OutKick soundbite was Mike Pence, who objected to the idea of Kennedy assuming a position of government authority—but not because he’s America’s most febrile vaccine conspiracy theorist. Pence’s  problem with Kennedy, of course, is that he’s pro-choice

Pence, Haley, and Scott are traditional conservatives. They have every incentive to try to woo away the considerable bloc of traditionally conservative voters in DeSantis’ coalition. What does it say about the politics of this issue that they see more downside than upside in faulting him for flirting with vaccine skeptics?

In fact, leave DeSantis out of this for a moment. What incentive does any Republican candidate have to criticize Robert F. Kennedy Jr. right now?

Last week I flagged a Quinnipiac poll placing Kennedy’s favorability at 21-47 within his own party nationally and at 48-22 within the GOP. A new survey from Morning Consult released on Wednesday confirmed that disparity. RFK is an increasingly unpopular figure on the left and an increasingly popular one on the right.

A few days ago he was granted a town hall forum with Sean Hannity in prime time on Fox News, an honor that operates as an announcement that a political figure has officially “arrived” in Republican politics. The audience cheered when RFK blamed the war in Ukraine on the United States rather than Russia.

Just this morning, when Karl Rove tried to educate Fox’s viewers about Kennedy’s nuttery, anchor Bill Hemmer pushed back by insisting that the candidate’s environmental views are quite reasonable. He’s “a different kind of Democrat, the kind of Democrat that, frankly, you and I grew up with,” Hemmer said admiringly. It seems that even the “news” side of Fox, insofar as such a thing still exists, feels obliged to normalize a progressive Democrat so long as he’s on the right (read: wrong) side of the Ukraine and vaccine debates.

There’s no way to quantify this but I’ve begun to sense that one’s view of Kennedy has become a litmus test among populist Republicans not unlike how one’s view of Trump became one in 2016. He’s popular enough already among the grassroots right that I wouldn’t feel confident about Scott, Haley, or especially Pence defeating him in a GOP primary head-to-head. DeSantis probably would, but I think the governor also senses a litmus test developing around RFK that he can’t afford to fail lest he alienate the MAGA voters he’s spent two years courting.

Put simply, by dint of his willingness to adopt every wacky anti-establishment opinion he stumbles across, Bobby Kennedy has proved to the right in just a few months that he’s more of a “fighter” than most Republican politicians. DeSantis has staked everything—everything—on convincing the base that he too is a “fighter,” more so than even Trump is. That would be up in smoke if he were to treat RFK like a kook, just as it would be if he took sides with the establishment against Trump on matters like January 6 or his classified documents scandal. You will not be president if you offend the MAGA bloc, something Haley, Scott, and Pence (well, maybe not Pence) also understand.  

I suspect the governor’s conservative fans understand all this. When they lambaste him for wanting to put RFK in the Cabinet, they’re not really mad at him. They’re mad at what the party has become and the sort of political incentives it now creates and they don’t know how to cope with it. They can’t disengage from politics; they won’t vote for Democrats or (I hope) for Trump; they see no chance of a traditional conservative winning the nomination. So they’re stuck going wherever DeSantis wants to take them, and DeSantis is stuck going wherever populists want to take him. No matter how stupid that destination might be.

And so we arrive at our own destination. Question: How many conservative DeSantis supporters who expressed their disgust at his Kennedy comments yesterday have concluded that he’s unfit for office?

Not unfit to be the nominee, mind you. I concede that he’s “fit” for that inasmuch as he’s preferable to Trump. I mean fit to be president.

I know of one person who’s said so. For the rest this is likely to be dumped into the long and growing list of “unfortunate, but …” items that almost but not quite add up collectively to withholding one’s vote from Thirsty Ron next November if he makes it that far.

This past week alone has added several such items, starting with the fracas over Florida’s new African American history curriculum. DeSantis got a bad rap for that, but the Kennedy episode reminds us why it was so easy to assume the worst in that case. The man became a presidential contender by continually indulging the right’s worst impulses. It’s not hard to believe he might sneak something into the state lesson plan about slaves learning useful skills from enslavement to make the alt-right chumps in his fan base giggle.

Speaking of which, there was also l’affaire Hochman, in which a former Dispatch intern (alas) turned New Right “it boy” turned DeSantis comms person was let go from the campaign after posting a video to social media that featured the following image. That’s the governor of Florida, his head framed by a white-supremacist symbol, with what looks to be stormtroopers marching on either side of him. To be clear: This was a video celebrating DeSantis, not mocking him.

The soundtrack for the video was, no joke, a Kate Bush song. It’s one thing to dip your toes into proto-fascism, it’s quite another to be cringe about it.

DeSantis did the right thing by letting Hochman go but his involvement in the campaign didn’t happen accidentally. In fact, DeSantis hired Hochman months after The Dispatch revealed that he had praised white supremacist Nick Fuentes for having “gotten a lot of kids based” and for being “probably a better influence than Ben Shapiro” on young right-wingers. If you’ve spent five minutes on Twitter you know that post-liberals are an important part of the governor’s coalition, one he and his team have courted assiduously. And continue to court, right up through the current uproar over what he said about RFK:

Do traditional conservatives who are committed to him understand how they’ve enabled this by handing him a “blank check for right-wing pandering”? 

It’s passing strange to hear pleas for a pivot to normalcy now, two years in, from those who indulged the governor’s MAGA-but-more-so strategy as long as it looked like it might deliver the nomination and ultimately the presidency. If he had faced more resistance for pandering to anti-vaxxers early on from normie Republicans, he might have thought differently of trying to beat Trump in 2024 by somehow out-Trumping him.

The fact that he didn’t face that resistance ironically proves that his current strategic instincts are correct, I think. DeSantis calculated that no matter how crazy he got with the populist Cheez Whiz, traditional partisan conservatives would grin and bear it. In the name of supporting him in the primary on anti-Trump grounds and in the general election on anti-Biden grounds, they’d rationalize or excuse every illiberal hairball he vomited up.

The populists who support him aren’t such cheap dates. One false move from Thirsty Ron could send millions of them scurrying back to Trump, preferring the genuine MAGA article to a candidate who turned out to be a pale imitation. If that happened, boosting Trump’s national numbers above 60 percent, how exactly would DeSantis’ pivot to normalcy gain him a majority in this godforsaken party?

It’s the populist hostage crisis all over again, playing out in miniature this time within the second-place candidate’s voter coalition. Partisan conservatives don’t need to sit still for it. Eight years of rationalizing support for a morally corrupt leader and his morally corrupt base is more than enough.

I’ll leave you with a thought I’ve offered before: Consider the possibility, just the possibility, that Ron DeSantis and his cronies have come to believe their own post-liberal nonsense. That it’s not just an ultra-cynical angle to keep the Hochmans of the world on his side.

Yes, the governor is a brilliant guy; yes, he’s exceptionally well educated; yes, he has roots in pre-Trump conservatism that should render him immune to it. But he’s spent five years inside an ideological cocoon receiving truly massive doses of success and adulation for his willingness to be the rootin’-est tootin’-est populist in Republican politics. That’s a lot of psychological reinforcement.

Recently none other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recalled a conversation he had with DeSantis during the pandemic. “We talked about him possibly running for the presidency, and I said, how will you handle the NIH?,” Kennedy remembered. “And he said: ‘I’ll burn it to the ground.’ You know, I understand the impulse. But I think I can have a more surgical impact on these agencies.” The governor, not the hair-on-fire conspiracy theorist, is the more committed civic arsonist according to that conspiracy theorist’s own telling. Hand power to a man who’s as thirsty as that at your peril.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.