Ron DeSantis is the popular governor of a racially diverse state with a substantial Democratic population. He is also a reactionary.
In the New York Times, Pamela Paul argues that liberals have a lot to learn from these two facts. The columnist implores her fellow Democrats to avoid writing DeSantis off as “another unelectable right-wing lunatic unfit for national office.” Rather than dismissing the Florida governor and his supporters as “racist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic,” Paul advises liberals to reflect on his political strengths.
She explains that, unlike Donald Trump, DeSantis was a star student at an Ivy League school. It’s therefore likely that he “knows what he’s doing” when he scandalizes progressives. He is a savvy political actor, if his approval rating is any guide. Democrats should therefore seek to learn from his example. It isn’t clear precisely what Paul believes we should learn.
She notes that many voters approved of DeSantis’s denigration of all manner of anti-COVID policies (including vaccination, which imposes few costs on personal freedom as it dramatically reduces COVID fatalities). She concedes that it’s worth condemning his decision to send desperate migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in a misbegotten bid to expose liberals’ supposed hypocrisy. But she observes that many Hispanic Floridians actually approved of the policy.
DeSantis’s Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits discussion of sensitive racial issues in the classroom, may be antithetical to free speech, but Paul insists some parents are “tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.” (Why parents who merely oppose the “politicization” of curricula would be pleased by a partisan legislature forbidding entire topics from classroom discussion is not explained.) DeSantis’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law may forbid a teacher from explaining why one of her students has two mothers, yet it also, according to Paul, has “reasonable and legitimate attractions” for parents worried that their gender-confused children may be socially transitioned without their consent.
Paul’s overarching argument — that liberals should not assume a politician who offends their sensibilities can’t win the presidency — is indisputably true. But it’s not clear who precisely is trying to dispute it. Paul does not quote a single liberal writer or politician making the claim that DeSantis could not possibly defeat Joe Biden in 2024. After Trump won an Electoral College majority while campaigning in support of mass murdering Muslim prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, few progressives believe the United States is incapable of electing a president with noxious views.
The fact that DeSantis has managed to comport himself as an unabashedly illiberal right-wing governor while commanding popular support in a state that is only 53 percent non-Hispanic white is certainly concerning. And it challenges blue America’s conventional wisdom about “the Hispanic vote” circa 2013. But Trump’s gains with nonwhite voters in 2020 have already prompted two years of liberal introspection about the cross-racial appeal of right-wing populism. It’s unclear what specifically Paul believes Democrats should do to combat it.
Her piece does appear to endorse DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law on the merits without actually arguing for it in any detail. The column also seems to imply that Democrats should consider moving rightward on immigration and distancing themselves from “woke” identity politics but does not say this explicitly. Liberals should not assume that “the best way to defang DeSantis” is “to mock and belittle him,” Paul writes. What is the best way to defeat him goes unexplained.
Generally speaking, it is wiser to overestimate one’s political rivals than to underestimate them. But it would nevertheless be a mistake for Democrats to grow so awed by a Florida governor with a 56 percent approval rating as to conclude that their only hope for keeping a reactionary out of the White House is to become more reactionary themselves.
DeSantis’s much-publicized political strengths are paired with underexposed weaknesses. And the issues on which he is most vulnerable — Medicare, Social Security, and abortion rights — are far more nationally salient than his crusades against “wokeness” in public schools.
Before his present incarnation as a populist purple-state governor, DeSantis was a pro-austerity, right-wing House member. In his 2011 book, he wrote that the U.S. Constitution was designed to “prevent the redistribution of wealth through the political process” and that this was commendable because “when the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” He further lamented that “popular pressure to redistribute wealth or otherwise undermine the rights of property … will ever be present.”
In other words, the self-styled “populist” argued that democracy is inherently dangerous since ordinary voters are sometimes able to pursue their economic interests through the political process — interests that include the progressive redistribution of income. Thus, DeSantis implied that the very existence of social-welfare programs that take resources from the wealthy and transfer them to the middle class, poor, and elderly is a violation of property rights and inherently tyrannical.
Although Congressman DeSantis did not go so far as to propose the wholesale abolition of all transfer programs, his congressional record is largely of a piece with his libertarian musings. During his 2012 congressional campaign, DeSantis expressed support for privatizing Social Security and Medicare. In 2013 and 2014, DeSantis deemed Paul Ryan’s infamous proposals for balancing the federal budgets insufficiently austere. Instead, as Josh Barro notes, DeSantis voted to replace those proposals with the Republican Study Committee’s more radical budget blueprints. The RSC’s 2013 fiscal vision would have raised the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare to 70, slowed the growth of Social Security benefits, and ended Medicare as we’d known it, transforming the program from a health-insurance entitlement to a stipend that wouldn’t necessarily increase with rising health-care costs.
In the decade since that proposal, the percentage of U.S. voters who rely on Social Security and Medicare has only grown. Perhaps not coincidentally, the idea of cutting such entitlement benefits has only become more politically toxic. Whereas the House GOP of 2013 argued unabashedly for shrinking Medicare and Social Security, today’s Republican Caucus has already vowed to spare cuts to those programs in any debt-ceiling deal. In a recent Pew poll of voters’ priorities, “reducing health-care costs” came in second behind “strengthening the economy.” Restricting eligibility for Medicare and cutting its benefits would seem antithetical to satisfying that concern. The issues DeSantis has concentrated on and Paul advises liberals to concern themselves with — such as public schools’ handling of racial and gender issues — do not rank in any recent survey of voters’ priorities.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’s record on abortion is poised to grow more politically vexing. At present, Florida bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, polls often found plurality support for banning abortion after 15 weeks. There is some evidence that Americans have become less tolerant of abortion bans now that they are becoming more commonplace. In a YouGov poll from last September, only 39 percent of voters endorsed a 15-week ban. Regardless, it is doubtlessly true that there is considerably more popular support for banning abortion after 15 weeks than there is for doing so earlier in a pregnancy.
Yet the vast majority of abortions are performed within those first 15 weeks; therefore Florida conservatives are eager for a more comprehensive ban. For his part, DeSantis may want to get a more thoroughgoing ban into law himself so as to shore up Evangelical support in the GOP primary. A little over a week ago, he appeared to signal an openness to signing a ban on abortions after the fetus attains a heartbeat, which generally occurs in the first six weeks of pregnancy. Florida state senate president Kathleen Passidomo is advocating for a 12-week ban, but the Florida Family Policy Council believes the “heartbeat” bill is more likely to move forward. Even if DeSantis doesn’t sign such a bill into law, a competitive GOP primary will likely force him to endorse draconian abortion restrictions if not an outright ban.
In last year’s midterms, voters consistently listed abortion as one of their top issues. The available data strongly suggests that voters’ opposition to the GOP’s reproductive agenda enabled Democrats to retain the Senate and limit Republican gains in the House. In a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who favored “less strict” abortion laws exceeded the percentage who favored “stricter” ones by a 46 to 15 percent margin. That represents the highest level of support for loosening abortion restrictions in the history of Gallup’s survey.
DeSantis’s landslide reelection was impressive, but there is reason to think Florida’s politics have become increasingly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. And whatever his approval rating, the fundamental reality is that DeSantis is much more conservative than the median U.S. voter. Just a few years ago, he was among the most right-wing members of a historically reactionary House Republican Caucus. It is possible that he is the most “electable” Republican who could survive a GOP primary. But that says more about the radicalization of the Republican primary electorate than it does about the breadth of DeSantis’s appeal.
Biden remains an unpopular president, and U.S. voters remain unhappy with inflation. Were Republicans capable of nominating a (relatively) moderate figure like former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, Democrats’ 2024 prospects might look poor. But a short, charisma-free, nasal-voiced proponent of Social Security cuts and abortion bans is not an especially fearsome adversary. Conventional Democratic politics — which is to say, promising to sustain entitlements by taxing the rich and to protect abortion rights by beating back the Bible-thumpers — is quite plausibly equal to the challenge of Ron DeSantis. And in his State of the Union on Tuesday night, Biden showed he remains more than fluent in such politics.
Democrats may have some things to learn from DeSantis’s success. But the party has no great need for lessons in how to simultaneously appeal to Evangelicals in the panhandle and anti-woke book reviewers in Manhattan.