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Ron DeSantis and the Most Politically Potent Path Past Trump
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Ron DeSantis and the Most Politically Potent Path Past Trump

Pugilism plus competence might be the political medicine the GOP needs.

That didn’t take long. Donald Trump has been out of office for less than three months, and already another GOP politician is sucking all of the media oxygen out of the room. Already another GOP politician has emerged as a potential heir to Donald Trump, leading in the way-too-early polling of the 2024 GOP primary (at least when Trump’s own name isn’t in the mix). It’s Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and it’s worth spending a newsletter’s worth of time understanding why.

First, a caveat. I know it’s completely ridiculous to handicap the 2024 race. Present-day primary polling is (at best!) nothing more than a who’s-up, who’s-down snapshot of contemporary momentum and buzz. Things can change—quickly. But it’s fascinating to see someone else dominate political news so soon after Trump. 

Part of this is his own fault. Not even Trump can maintain a dominating public presence through inertia alone. He has to work to keep all eyes on him, and he’s simply not doing that work. At least not yet. 

Since Trump’s rise, we’ve seen the playbook for those who want to inherit his followers. It’s summed up in one word: fight. That’s Josh Hawley and his clenched-fist salute to the mob outside the Capitol. That’s Ted Cruz and his own-the-libs crusade du jour. That’s Tucker Carlson, every night. Find the enemy. Fix him in your sights. Fight him with every ounce of Twitter strength you can muster. 

That one-word mission statement might sell well on Fox and Newsmax, and it might earn those sweet new-right retweets, but there’s a problem: Unless Hillary Clinton is on the ballot, “fight” has proven to repel more people than it attracts. The Democratic Party and the hard left are stronger than they were in 2016, and they’re stronger in part because people have sought refuge from Trump’s temper. 

A focus on the fight alone puts the GOP in an impossible bind. Neglect the battle and lose your base. Bash the enemy and build their ranks. 

But what if a person can fight and govern at the same time? I’m going to beat a drum that I’ve been beating for a very long time. The underestimated instrument of Trump’s fall was always his incompetence. Many of his supporters argue, to this day, that he would have won re-election “but for the pandemic.” I think I agree. But it wasn’t the pandemic that sunk him so much as his response to the pandemic. 

No one doubts that responding to COVID has taxed the best of men and women, but American presidents are supposed to rise to extreme challenges. Don’t seek the job if you’re not capable of dealing with a crisis. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, few governors have been in the crosshairs of public attention more than Ron DeSantis. And as the pandemic enters its closing stages, the verdict on his performance is starting to emerge, and that verdict is largely positive. Florida is in the bottom half of deaths per million. At the same time, it has one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. And lest you think this is simply a product of factors like warm weather and population density, many other southern states fall far short of Florida’s record—and they are both less dense and have much lower percentages of vulnerable, older residents.

Yes, luck matters. But governance matters as well. And Ron DeSantis has a better story to tell than most. A recent Politico report put it well:

Florida has fared no worse, and in some ways better, than many other states—including its big-state peers. The most controversial policies DeSantis enacted—locking down later and opening up earlier, keeping nursing homes closed to visitation while insisting schools needed to be open to students, resisting intense pressure to issue a mask mandate—have ended up being, on balance, short of or even the opposite of ruinous. Even his fiercest detractors by now have a hard time mustering outrage over his edict on schools. And his standing looks far sturdier than his gubernatorial counterparts now teetering from Covid-related crises—Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall in California, and Andrew Cuomo, who is on the precipice of political extinction in New York.

And that brings us to the fight. If we judge governance by results, then DeSantis has governed better than most. He also fights better than most, and of late he’s had legitimate reason to fight. He was recently the target of an extraordinarily unfair hit piece from 60 Minutes. It intended to prove that DeSantis granted Publix unfair advantages in dispensing vaccines after Publix gave him a $100,000 donation. To point to just one problem with the 60 Minutes piece, watch the deceptive editing below:

And don’t take my word that 60 Minutes was deceptive. Here’s Politifact

“Deceptive editing” means a clip “has been edited and rearranged,” according to the Washington Post’s guide to manipulated video. Deceptive editing can include omission (“editing out large portions from a video and presenting it as a complete narrative” to “skew reality”) and splicing (“editing together disparate videos (that) fundamentally alters the story that is being told”).

By omitting DeSantis’ remarks on why the state partnered with Publix to distribute vaccines in Palm Beach County, the “60 Minutes” clip could fall into the former category.

“In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school that owns PolitiFact. “I think they owe it to everybody—they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public—to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.”

When you watch the clip above, it’s worth noting that DeSantis didn’t just fight righteously, he fought well. He knew his facts, and he made his argument with an eloquence and precision that has quite frankly been missing from GOP discourse for five long years. 

This newsletter isn’t a DeSantis endorsement. Far from it. He was sometimes absurdly sycophantic towards Trump, and he also has disturbing populist tendencies, including the contemporary GOP tendency to attempt to override property rights and free speech for the sake of populist crusades against Big Tech and so-called vaccine passports. His story is still being written. 

Smart Democrats know their present majority is fragile indeed. Smart Democrats know that the 2020 results were both encouraging (they won, after all) and sobering. The polls promised a greater victory than Biden won, they almost lost the House, and they likely would have lost the Senate but for Trump’s deranged post-election crusade. Smart Democrats know that if Biden stumbles, the GOP’s path to the White House is broad and wide.

At the same time, smart Republicans know that they have their own profound problems. How do you hold an angry base while recapturing suburbanites who were repulsed by the incompetence and corruption of the Trump administration? Perhaps by governing well and fighting hard for a righteous cause. If that’s the playbook, then DeSantis has an early edge—and he’s gained that edge almost entirely on his own, without the meaningful assistance of the GOP leader he may well replace. 

One last thing …

While we wait for the next SpaceX Starship to roll to the launchpad, let’s go back to my (and Elon Musk’s) favorite plane. Can you believe we manufactured the first SR-71 almost 60 years ago???

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.