The DeSantis Difference

The presumed GOP frontrunner a million years out shows that you can have a culture war and good policy at the same time.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at LifeScience Logistics to urge the Biden administration to approve Florida’s plan to import prescription drugs from Canada, thereby saving Floridians an estimated $100 million annually on drug costs. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Paul Ryan has returned to Republican politics and the reaction from MAGA world has been one of jubilation. Riders have galloped through conservative villages crying, “He’s back! He’s back!” Toasts have been raised at bar counters and kitchen tables across America. A ticker-tape parade has been planned in which Ryan will stroll through the streets waving and doing that half-smile thing of his, while red-hatted throngs scream with adulation and confetti made from the pages of Alexander Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures” rains down from on high.

Actually it’s more the opposite of all that.

Ryan’s recent reemergence, for a speech at the Reagan Library, has, in fact, been greeted with contempt from many on the right, who view him as a kind of overdue library book from the Obama era. Yet there’s one line in his address that I think has been unfairly maligned. “Culture matters, absolutely, yes,” Ryan said, “but our party must be defined by more than a tussle over the latest grievance or perceived slight. We must not let them take priority over solutions—grounded in principle—to improve people’s lives.”

It may be that Ryan was a little too dismissive of the culture war there. But he has a point, and what’s more, conservatives seem to understand as much. As proof, consider the rapid ascent of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis is widely regarded on the right as the 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner (provided Donald Trump doesn’t throw his hat into the circus ring, which is admittedly providing a lot). DeSantis’s resume is almost annoyingly good—Yale and Harvard Law, Navy JAG, Bronze Star Medal recipient—but then so was John McCain’s. What makes DeSantis interesting is just how well-suited he seems to the current political moment. More than anyone else, he’s managed to combine those two tendencies that Ryan outlined, a need to wage the culture war and a hunger for solutions grounded in governance.

DeSantis’s proclivity to fight the left is well established. He recently signed into law a bill that will allow Floridians to sue tech platforms that censor them and that bans big tech from deplatforming political candidates. (Deftly, the Florida governor compared tech company censorship to authoritarian measures in Cuba and Venezuela.) He approved a ban on transgendered women’s sports on the very first day of Pride Month, which seemed like more than just coincidence. He’s pushing a new rule before the Florida Board of Education that would effectively squash the teaching of critical race theory, which he has compared to Marxism. He rarely misses an opportunity to excoriate the “corporate media.”

DeSantis has also been one of the loudest voices on what should have been a medical and economic issue, yet in our deeply stupid time has become a cultural one: the pandemic. Republicans have no better argument for a laissez-faire approach to COVID than the state of Florida. By now the litany is familiar: Florida never implemented a statewide mask mandate, began to reopen beaches last April, sent kids back to school last fall, lifted most restrictions on bars and restaurants around the same time. Yet what often gets forgotten is the enormous pressure they were under to do the opposite. During the post-Fourth of July coronavirus surge, Miami briefly became the epicenter of the pandemic, drawing critical eyes from around the world. Dr. Fauci threw his shade. The media did media things.

Yet DeSantis mostly stuck to his plan, listening to state health experts rather than the ninnies in the federal government. Consequently Florida today has a boomtown feel. Those aren’t my words; they’re a quote from that right-wing rag the New York Times. Florida’s economic recovery during and after the pandemic has been bracing; it faces no existential questions about its future like New York, no last-minute U.K. variant outbreaks like Michigan. It’s just open. Which brings us to the other side of that Paul Ryan binary, pragmatic policy, and here, if only by virtue of his being a governor, DeSantis has a serious record of accomplishment. That includes his stewardship during COVID, a tax cut package, an expansion of school choice, more money to restore the Everglades, the legalization of smokeable medical marijuana, and new initiatives to prevent opioid abuse.

You hit a point, of course, where you realize that culture and policy blur together, that policy is culture and culture influences policy. Yet if, as is commonly and sloppily assumed, conservatives want a culture war while independents want policy results, then DeSantis has got you covered. In fact, he may be the only candidate who really does. Not to throw up another binary, but on one side of the GOP right now are moderates like Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, who’s racked up real policy successes yet who also tends to avoid the culture war. On the other side stands Senator Ted Cruz, who’s been careful to attack all the right targets yet who’s never actually had to run a state.

What makes DeSantis so attractive is that he covers both sides of that spectrum. In him are united two powerful realities: Voters are relocating to low-tax, unmasked, Republican-run states; voters are exhausted with left-wing bullying over issues like racism and gender. Slap all that onto a brochure and you’ve got yourself a powerful campaign platform. You also have what may be the only hope of gluing back together a very fractured Republican Party.

This is why 60 Minutes tried to smear DeSantis. It’s why even David Frum is bullish on him. And it’s why conservatives ought to take a second look at governors rather than the auto-calibrating legislators and harebrained YouTube stars they sometimes think should be running the world. What DeSantis ultimately represents isn’t Trumpism 2.0, as some have suggested; it’s Trumpism properly managed. It’s anti-wokeness, law and order, immigration enforcement, low taxes, deregulation, skepticism of big tech, but sold assiduously and implemented smartly, without the gun forever blasting into the presidential foot.

Of course, we can’t call the Republican primary just yet. It’s still 2021, after all, and I personally haven’t given up on my dream of a Louise Mensch/MyPillow Guy unity ticket. But pundits are gonna speculate—it’s what we do, deeply broken creatures that we are—and given as much, I would wager that two and a half years from now, Ron DeSantis is still going to look like a winner.

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