What liberals can learn from Ron DeSantis

By Pamela Paul, Opinion Columnist, The New York Times, February 9, 2023

Is there anything liberals can do about Ron DeSantis other than quietly seethe, loudly condemn him every time he makes headlines and hope that his political flaws — his distaste for glad-handing, his less-than-inspiring public-speaking style, his conspicuous unlikability — will take him down before he gets anywhere close to the presidency? It would be tempting to write off DeSantis, the bombastic Republican governor of Florida, as another unelectable right-wing lunatic unfit for national office.

We’ve made that mistake before.

It’s reliably depressing to revisit 2016 and the misbegotten liberal conviction that America couldn’t possibly elevate Donald Trump to the presidency. We’ve already cataloged the mistakes in media coverage and dissected what we missed that somehow made Trump a viable, let alone a desirable, candidate to occupy the Oval Office. But here we go again. As the Democratic political strategist Lis Smith has remarked, the left’s reaction to DeSantis looks just like its reaction to Trump: “He’s picking these fights. He’s saying and doing abhorrent things. And all the same characters — whether in the media, Democratic politics, the punditry class, whatever it is — have the same freakout.”

Let’s pay closer attention this time.

First, we shouldn’t underestimate DeSantis. He may resemble Trump in his politics — but not in his intellect or resolve. Compare their respective backgrounds: Whereas Trump’s acceptance into the University of Pennsylvania, after an academic record notable only for its mediocrity, was an egregious example of leveraging personal connections to get into a prestigious university, DeSantis, the son of a TV ratings box installer and a nurse, actually earned his way into the Ivy League. People bent over backward to ascribe some accidental form of grifter street smarts to Trump. But DeSantis is demonstrably intelligent and industrious. He worked his way through Yale while playing baseball and graduated magna cum laude.

Whereas Trump skirted military service with a convenient discovery of bone spurs, DeSantis was a commissioned officer in the Navy. He graduated from Harvard Law School. He may share Trump’s taste for bluster, but this is not someone who bumbled his way into public office. As Dexter Filkins observed last year in a New Yorker profile, “DeSantis has an intense work ethic, a formidable intelligence and a granular understanding of policy.”

Because we can assume DeSantis knows what he’s doing, we should make careful note of his record in Florida, where he has been governor since 2019. His approval rating in Florida is consistently over 50 percent and includes high ratings among Latinos and in former liberal strongholds like Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties.

The jury is still out on whether DeSantis’s unorthodox response to Covid-19 was a colossal error or an unexpected success or, more likely, something in between, but the fact that he took an aggressive approach to avoid the pains of lockdown on small businesses and families wasn’t lost on Florida voters. While other politicians prevaricated and dithered, DeSantis spoke with conviction and seemed to be doing something, and to many working families in Florida, that mattered.

When I visited Miami from Covid-conscious New York in 2021, the vibe in bars and restaurants in the Wynwood art district — where nobody asked for proof of vaccination and I was the only person in a mask — was euphoric. In that young, overwhelmingly liberal corner of the city, people weren’t faulting DeSantis for his pandemic policies. He also acted decisively last year during Hurricane Ian, a response that won strong bipartisan approval.

In a country where government often looks sclerotic, DeSantis’s knack for action bears notice. We can decry his stunt in shipping migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, but we should also be attending to the real concerns of people living in areas of heavy immigration. Lest we forget, Hispanic voters in Florida preferred DeSantis to his Democratic opponent in last year’s election for governor; they also supported his Martha’s Vineyard escapade, according to a Telemundo/LX News poll. “There are lots of Hispanic voters in this state who really like the governor’s style, this strongman who won’t back down,” one pollster explained at the time.

Democrats need to grapple with this appeal. It would be easy to write DeSantis off as a cartoon culture warrior or as racist, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic. He may well be all those things, and so may some of his constituents. But he may not be, and either way, it would be foolish to characterize all his followers as such. Assuming a stance of moral superiority will do us no good. (See: Hillary Clinton, “deplorables.”)

Finally, we shouldn’t let DeSantis co-opt positions on which Democrats have historical strength and a natural advantage: education, health care, jobs. There are reasons so many Americans are relocating to the Sunshine State beyond the balmy weather. This month, DeSantis released a budget plan that featured targeted tax cuts aimed at parents, salary increases for state employees, including teachers, and significant investments in schools, including programs in civic education.

DeSantis’s maverick approach to primary, secondary and higher education has brought widespread condemnation from Democrats, particularly from their more progressive wing. But we should pay attention to why his policies land better with voters than with progressive critics. A law like the Stop WOKE Act of 2021 (later partly blocked by a federal court), which limited the discussion of certain racial issues during diversity training sessions offered by private employers and in the classroom, may come with an incendiary name and some egregious efforts to curtail free speech. But it’s important to recognize that aspects of it appeal to Floridians tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.

As many liberals will quietly acknowledge, the Parental Rights in Education Act, which DeSantis signed last year and which opponents nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, has reasonable and legitimate attractions for a broad range of parents who worry about the focus, efficacy and age appropriateness of what their kids are learning in primary and secondary school. Democratic leadership should worry, too. Keeping quiet or pretending those concerns aren’t real won’t make them go away.

Then there’s college. The challenges of higher education have never been a strength for the Republican Party, which has long ignored the myriad needs of indebted students and the financial and existential pressures on academic institutions. If ideological conformity has taken root in American universities, long a bastion of liberal ideals, then Democrats are the ones with the knowledge, experience and record to attend to the problem. It’s on liberals to check the excesses of illiberal orthodoxies rampant among those on its far-left wing. It’s on us to ensure academic freedom and the kind of educational system parents can trust.

It should be cause for alarm that recent polls show Republicans holding an advantage on educational issues. Rather than dismiss parents’ concerns as somehow unfounded or wrongheaded, we should be listening to them and finding better solutions to their grievances. Telling parents they’re bigots or are unenlightened for not embracing the latest faddish orthodoxy is not a winning message.

Which brings us back to Trump. We know that he takes DeSantis seriously because Trump has shown signs that he’s scared of DeSantis as a competitor. If even Trump knows that much, Democrats are capable of knowing more. Trump may think the best way to defang DeSantis — whom he calls “DeSanctimonious” — is to mock and belittle him. Democrats should recognize it will take far more than that.

Pamela Paul became an Opinion columnist for The New York Times in 2022. She was previously the editor of The New York Times Book Review for nine years, where she oversaw book coverage and hosted the Book Review podcast. She is the author of eight books: “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” (named a best book of 2021 by The Chicago Tribune), “My Life With Bob,” “How to Raise a Reader,” “By the Book,” “Parenting, Inc.,” “Pornified” (a best book of 2005 by The San Francisco Chronicle), “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony” (a best book of 2002 by The Washington Post) and “Rectangle Time,” a book for children.

Before joining The Times, she was a contributor to Time and a correspondent for The Economist. She was a columnist for The New York Times Sunday Styles section and Worth magazine. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post and Vogue. She has lived in Thailand, France and Britain and currently lives in New York with her husband and children.

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