At this point, I almost don’t know whether to view Ron DeSantis with contempt—or pity.
On the one hand, he is a terrible governor who is failing his leadership course with flying colors. Driven only by politics and naked ambition, he pursues reckless policies that divide Floridians and may even put them in danger. Case in point: the governor’s plan to challenge in court the Biden administration’s new vaccine rules for private businesses with 100 or more employees, which are supposed to take effect on Jan. 4.
It’s not just mandates or supposed overreach by the feds; the governor’s new surgeon general, who leads the state’s department of health, has echoed his boss by offering anecdotes and invoking conspiracy theories to question the efficacy of the vaccines themselves. The doc even argued that what’s really “bad for health” isn’t rejecting the vaccine, but firing people who refuse to take it. What happened to “First, do no harm?”
And it’s not just COVID-19. DeSantis is also distracted by federal issues like immigration, to the point where he often neglects his responsibilities in Tallahassee. DeSantis has all but declared Florida to be a border state, pushing back against President Biden’s immigration policies with the force that one might expect from governors of Texas or Arizona.
Lastly, like the wacky state he leads, DeSantis seems to be a “crazy story” factory. Every few days, you’ll see a new story about DeSantis’ latest antics or half-baked policy initiative, as he constantly strives for the spotlight and hopes for a reserved seat on the GOP express from Crazytown to the White House in 2024.
Some of the attention-grabbing is comical, and a lot of it is crude. Much of it also seems reflexive, as if the governor is a puppet and his own ambition is pulling the strings. DeSantis doesn’t lead; he follows.
On Wednesday, during a speech in West Palm Beach, DeSantis fired up a crowd of supporters when he referred to President Joe Biden’s administration as the “Brandon administration” before breaking into laughter. The crowd got the joke. It started chanting “Let’s go Brandon,” a phrase that has become right-wing code for “Fuck Joe Biden.”
Yet, having said all that, you almost have to feel sorry for him. DeSantis is obviously so desperate to be president that he is pandering like mad on multiple fronts as he tries to stay in the good graces of the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party ahead of his re-election bid next year. DeSantis is being pressured, almost daily, by right-wing trolls to lurch further and further toward them. It’s hard to know if the trolls want to support him, or if they’re just messing with him to exercise their muscles.
The governor goes along with it, because he apparently has no core beliefs other than the unshakable conviction that he should sit in the Oval Office.
And here’s the misery of it all. It’s not like the trolls will ever be satisfied. They just keep moving the markers, and demanding more and more groveling and allegiance—not just from DeSantis but from any elected official in the GOP establishment. For them, it’s just a power play.
The troll du jour is Roger Stone, who—if there were any justice in the world—would be wearing an orange jumpsuit right now. The former Trump adviser and political strategist was convicted in 2019 of seven felonies linked to the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The infractions include five counts of making false statements to FBI and congressional investigators, one count of witness tampering, and one count of obstruction of justice. His sentence was commuted by Trump in July 2020. It’s good to have friends in low places.
Now Stone is demanding DeSantis conduct an audit of the 2020 election in the state in service of Trump’s big lie—that the race was stolen.
Stone wrote to his thousands of followers on social media: “If Gov. Ron DeSantis does not order a full audit of the Florida 2020 vote, I may be forced to seek the Libertarian Party nomination for governor in 2022. And Ron can kiss his arrogant Yalie ass goodbye #DefendFlorida.”
Let’s talk about that “arrogant Yalie ass” reference for a second. It’s worth remembering how DeSantis climbed this high, this fast, in GOP circles. For one thing, it doesn’t hurt that he has executive experience when so many of his likely Republican opponents in 2024 are likely to be one-dimensional U.S. Senators who can’t say the same thing. See: Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri.
For another, the governor has a gold-plated resume that includes legislative experience from a stint in Congress, degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, and even military service as a former lieutenant commander in the Navy. Sniping from lowlifes like Stone notwithstanding, that is a pretty respectable record.
And ironically, it is that same commodity—“respect”—that DeSantis is gambling away with his right-wing lurch. It’s respect that he is in danger of losing by inching closer and closer to the radical fringe. This is high-stakes poker. If he doesn’t play his cards right, he could easily fall off the leaderboard of likely 2024 GOP presidential candidates and become just another freak in the ever-expanding Republican freakshow.
That would be a huge setback for DeSantis, who—polls show—is, for Republicans, the No. 1 “OTT” candidate for president in 2024, with OTT standing for “other than Trump.” If Trump runs again, which could well happen, then it’s lights out for most of the rest of the Republican field. That might include DeSantis, who draws from the same well of voters as Trump. If Trump sits out 2024, however, DeSantis is likely to be the GOP frontrunner—if he can keep his reputation intact, and his wits about him, between now and then.
That’s why DeSantis is stuck. If he panders to the crazy right, he loses. If he doesn’t, he still loses. His is a cautionary tale of what happens when an elected official gets led by voters, instead of the other way around.
As the whole world knows, Democrats had a mighty tough week. They’re still shell-shocked by the thumping they got in the Virginia governor’s race, along with a close call in the governor’s race in deep-blue New Jersey. Democratic Party leaders are worried not just about the 2022 midterms, but also, looking further down the line, their chances to come out on top in the next presidential election.
Here’s one piece of good news for Democrats: the Florida governor is so compromised, and tangled up in his own knots, that, by then, he may not be a threat to anyone other than himself.