How Ron DeSantis transformed into an anti-public health crusader

“In March 2020, in the uncertain first weeks of the pandemic, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis acted and talked like most other politicians. He shut down public schools and prohibited visitors at nursing homes. He expanded testing capacity and closed parks out of what he called a need to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on social distancing. By early April, he had issued his own version of a stay-at-home order and was urging his state’s residents to stay “spiritually together, but to remain socially distant.”
Three years later, DeSantis has transformed himself into the face of an anti-“woke,” anti-public health movement that blossomed during the pandemic — the leader of an administration that was willing to not only defy the public health consensus but to control and manipulate information in order to advance its narrative of a crisis that has killed more than 1.1 million Americans, including more than 87,000 Floridians.

A report this month from the Tampa Bay Time revealed that DeSantis’s state surgeon general had altered scientific data in order to justify his official position that young men should not receive the Covid-19 vaccine. DeSantis, who has criticized former President Donald Trump for deferring to public health officials like Anthony Fauci, has embraced conspiratorial talking points. He has suggested profits and not public health drove the Covid vaccine campaign and convened a state grand jury to investigate any “misconduct” on the part of drug manufacturers and the scientific community related to the vaccines.”

“What’s clear is something changed, and quickly. Within a month of pleading with Floridians to remain socially distant, DeSantis had begun to reopen the state’s economy. As months went by, he became more brazen in his willingness to bend the truth around Covid and staffed his administration accordingly. Within a year, he had hired a Covid vaccine skeptic as his surgeon general, who would later be accused of altering study data to advance that agenda, and was fighting cruise ships over their plans to impose vaccine mandates for their passengers.”

“In March and April, the governor’s approval ratings sagged. For those who wanted him to be aggressive in fighting Covid-19, he was not doing enough. For the conservative voters beginning to believe an alternative narrative of the pandemic, his response was an overreaction. As he fumbled through the first few weeks of Covid-19, DeSantis seemed to satisfy no one.

So the governor picked a lane. DeSantis sided with the Republican base upon which he would depend for his political future.

One public health expert who spoke directly with DeSantis around that time, who, like others I interviewed, did not want to be quoted by name for fear of retribution, said the governor referred specifically to senior residents in conservative areas like the Villages as “my people” and appeared preoccupied most with them when considering the response to the coronavirus. Later on, his vaccine-skeptical agenda reflected the mood of many conservative voters, who had glommed onto mischaracterizations about the risks of Covid-19 and conspiracy theories about the vaccines meant to stop it.

DeSantis’s pandemic response helped make him into a national figure, valorized among conservatives and villainized by Democrats and many public health experts.”

Ron DeSantis might not be as tough on crime as he says he is

“there’s a problem with DeSantis’s attacks on Democrats’ policies on crime: It’s not clear that crime is lower in Florida than in some of the cities he has criticized. In some Florida cities, the data shows murder rates are significantly higher than in blue cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Experts say there’s also no evidence to support that some of DeSantis’s signature public safety policies, including doubling down on cash bail, are effective in reducing crime, and other DeSantis crime policies involve considerable trade-offs and uncertainties.
As he preps a potential 2024 presidential run, DeSantis has also eliminated permit requirements to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, where mass shootings have become more common than in any other state except California and where gun deaths are on the rise. The governor signed the law last week, following a recent mass shooting at a school in Tennessee and amid a spate of gun violence in Florida. Given that data suggests spikes in violent crime in recent years were driven by gun violence, DeSantis’s efforts to make guns more easily accessible should be seen as an affront to public safety.

DeSantis’s claims about public safety in his state are based on a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that the state’s total crime fell more than 8 percent to a 50-year low in 2021, compared to an estimated 1 percent nationally. However, neither of those figures is reliable, in part because of a shift in how the data was reported that year.

Still, tapping into voters’ fears about crime might be an effective campaign strategy”

What ‘Freedom’ Means to Ron DeSantis

“DeSantis talks a lot about freedom, and even more about the supposed threats to it. For the governor, those seem to lurk everywhere, from drag shows to Disney and from undocumented immigrants to corporate “diversity, equity, and inclusion” efforts. In his new book, titled The Courage To Be Free, and in speeches like the one he gave on April 1 to a crowd of local elected officials and conservative activists in central Pennsylvania, DeSantis portrays Florida as a place that’s been able to withstand the myriad assaults on freedom because he’s been willing (and eager) to deploy the power of the state.
But he rarely offers much in the way of a definition of freedom, preferring instead, one assumes, to let everyone in the audience define the thing for themselves. When he does get into specifics, it’s usually to draw some telling distinctions.

“For years, the default conservative posture has been to limit government,” he writes in the new book. That idea must be discarded, he adds: “Elected officials who do nothing more than get out of the way are essentially green-lighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society.”

This is no small thing. For ages, conservatives have often echoed the libertarian idea that government is the greatest threat to Americans’ freedom. DeSantis postulates a different idea: What if it isn’t?”

“DeSantis got a warm reception and earned several extended ovations—the longest and loudest, by far, coming after he promised to support legislation in Florida to revoke medical licenses from doctors who perform gender-affirming surgeries on minors.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s a limitation on Floridians’ freedoms. Imposing such limits has been a recurring element of DeSantis’ term. He is now pushing for even more, including felony charges for anyone who shelters or employs undocumented immigrants and a new ban on abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. It’s a tricky thing to sell this impulse to regulate individuals’ choices as a campaign to protect freedom. But that’s what DeSantis is trying to do at events like the Pennsylvania conference.”

“You can have the freedom to send your kid to any school you’d like in Florida—as long as it’s a school that teaches a curriculum the governor approves.”

Should Anti-Trump Republicans Clear The Field For DeSantis?

“if you don’t want Trump to win, DeSantis is clearly your best choice. It’s still early, of course, and things could change, but early polls are decently predictive of how candidates perform in primaries, and DeSantis today is polling in the mid-to-high 20s in multi-candidate surveys. That puts him in a clear second position at this point.
And the good news for DeSantis is that most Republican voters probably want a Trumpy party, even if they choose someone else to lead it. Take Morning Consult’s primary poll tracker: Trump (54 percent) and DeSantis (26 percent) combine for 80 percent of the primary vote. And based on second-choice preferences, voters don’t view them as intractably opposed choices, but rather as two sides of the same coin. The leading second-choice candidate for Trump voters is DeSantis with 46 percent (Pence gets 17 percent), and the leading second choice for DeSantis voters is …Trump with 43 percent (Pence is at 16 percent).

So do you want a certain approach to politics or do you want to stop Trump? The latter seems more likely to bring about Trump’s defeat than the former, in part because GOP primary voters prefer a Trumpian approach.”

“it’s too early to dismiss the possible alternatives to both DeSantis and Trump! Yes, DeSantis is doing well in the polls right now, but he’s been slipping as of late. And there’s evidence that people don’t really know who he is — or are still making up their minds about him.”

Ron DeSantis has a Florida problem

“on one cultural issue that did hurt Republicans in the midterm elections — abortion — DeSantis is going even further to the right, preparing to sign a bill banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape and incest if victims offer proof of a crime.

“Wow,” said Amy Tarkanian, a former chair of the Republican Party in Nevada, where DeSantis traveled over the weekend. “A lot of people don’t even know they’re pregnant at six weeks. I’m pro-life, but that’s pretty extreme.””

““If you’re running for president, you ain’t got no choice,” said Jason Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and adviser to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “On the abortion issue, if you don’t go as far right as the oxygen will allow you to go, it’s a vulnerability in a Republican primary. That’s just life.””

The many reinventions of Ron DeSantis

“Looking back through DeSantis’s career in elected politics, the main through line isn’t policy principle or ideological fealty, but rather apparent opportunism. In just over a decade, his persona has undergone a series of quite calculated shifts based on what DeSantis evidently felt could help him climb the next rung.”

“Being a Tea Party conservative got him into Congress. Becoming a staunch Trump defender got him the Republican nomination for Florida’s governorship. Being a pragmatist who avoided national controversies helped boost his approval rating early in his governorship. Now, his latest reinvention as an “anti-wokeness” culture warrior has helped make him the leading alternative to Trump in polls of national Republican primary voters. Each shift was optimized for his next political objective.”

“During those Tea Party years, defining yourself as a conservative champion meant pushing for cuts to government spending, so DeSantis embraced that cause, saying he wanted to partially privatize Medicare and Social Security. He won the House seat and followed through on his commitments once in Congress, supporting the effort to shut down the government (in an attempt to defund Obamacare) in 2013 and becoming a co-founder of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus in 2015.”

“Once President Trump was in office, DeSantis saw a new path for advancement: becoming one of Trump’s biggest congressional defenders. In August 2017, he started a push to defund special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, and he grilled Justice Department officials over whether the probe was politically biased. He then got to ride with Trump on Air Force One, where, according to reports, Trump pledged support for his bid for Florida’s open governorship, saying, “You’re my guy.” A presidential endorsement came by tweet in December 2017.

Still, DeSantis remained locked in a tight race with Adam Putnam, a better-known candidate tied to the state’s traditional GOP establishment. So he hugged Trump ever tighter, to the point of absurdity, with an ad showing him “building the wall” of blocks with his daughter and reading The Art of the Deal to his baby (“Then Mr. Trump said, ‘You’re fired.’ I love that part”).

It worked: DeSantis won the primary by 20 points.”

“DeSantis recalibrated again when he took office as governor in 2019, and spent much of his first year winning praise for his approach.
Initially, DeSantis “seemed determined to govern from the center on the environment, education, marijuana, criminal justice and public accountability,” and he won “unexpected praise from both the right and the left for his efforts,” Andrew Romano later wrote for Yahoo News.

DeSantis focused on clean water. He posthumously pardoned the Groveland Four (four Black men who had been accused of rape in 1949 but are now believed to have been innocent). He pushed to raise teacher salaries. He appointed some Democrats to his administration.

It’s not that he fully abandoned the right. He still, for instance, signed a bill letting teachers carry guns in school and banned Florida cities from protecting some unauthorized immigrants from deportation. But he stayed off Fox News, in what the Tampa Bay Times reported was a concerted strategy “to avoid questions that could suck him into polarizing partisan battles.””

“What came next turned out to be the Covid-19 pandemic and soaring conservative interest in culture-war issues, and these spurred DeSantis to abandon his conciliatory style and adopt his current persona.”

“The memory of DeSantis being a middle-of-the-road governor who avoided hot-button cultural issues seems like a distant dream because, in the past couple of years, he’s deliberately leaned into one national controversy after another, focusing particularly on denouncing “wokeness.”

“The woke is the new religion of the left,” DeSantis said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. “And the problem that we face as conservatives is a lot of major institutions in our country have become infected with this woke virus.””

“he signed legislation or took executive action on all these topics. He banned trans athletes from playing girls’ or women’s sports. He signed a bill, denounced as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, to ban classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in third grade and below, and then took aim at business benefits for Disney”

“He signed an “anti-rioting” law that critics said could chill peaceful protest. He had migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He required all books in Florida school libraries be checked for inappropriate content. He signed a law that would fine social media companies for banning candidates for office from their platforms. He appointed conservative ideologues to overhaul a small, progressive state college, and ordered the end of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at others.”

“Political pragmatism and opportunism can be good traits if they align the politician’s incentives with simply doing a good job for the country. But they can also be quite dangerous if the politician is willing to throw anyone under the bus to advance himself politically — for instance, by demagoguing marginalized groups.

DeSantis’s views may be less authentic than other politicians’, but that doesn’t necessarily make them less menacing to liberals. The Trumpist right remains powerful and influential, and if DeSantis continues to view their support as crucial to his success, he’ll likely do whatever it takes to get and keep them on his side.”

DeSantis’ Disney Drama Turns Culture War Into Political Gains

“DeSantis argues that this is a pro-transparency change that will ensure Disney cannot do whatever it pleases without some semblance of state oversight. It could also be, as DeSantis critics like Jonathan Chait have argued, a move that will allow DeSantis to exert direct pressure over Disney’s content in the future. The board members won’t be able to write or reject plot arcs in future Disney films, of course, but an unhappy board could cause problems for the company’s development plans in and around its Florida theme parks.”

“In the old days, conservatives would have viewed unelected officials being appointed to oversee corporate decisions as a worrying intrusion of state power into private affairs. DeSantis has figured out how to get them to cheer for it.”

DeSantis blasts immigration laws once popular with Florida Republicans

“Gov. Ron DeSantis is using his sway over the Republican-dominated Legislature to urge lawmakers to repeal state laws that offered additional legal rights to undocumented immigrants, protections that less than a decade ago were popular with many Florida Republicans, including DeSantis’ own lieutenant governor.”

“Included in DeSantis’ proposal is the repeal of a 2014 law sponsored by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez when she was a member of the Florida House that offered out-of-state tuition vouchers to some eligible Dreamers, those brought to the United States illegally at a young age. It applied to Dreamers who attended a Florida high school for at least three years.”

“DeSantis’ proposal would also repeal a second law passed in 2014 with bipartisan support that allowed noncitizens to be admitted to the Florida Bar. The proposal was signed into law by Scott and got “yes” votes from Diaz, Nunez and Oliva. Simpson and Patronis, both of whom are seen as eyeing bids for governor in 2026, did not vote on the measure when legislators approved it on the House and Senate floors.
The law allows the Florida Supreme Court to admit noncitizens to the Florida Bar if they meet certain qualifications, including being brought to the United states as a minor and living in the country for a decade or longer. It was passed for José Manuel Godinez-Samperio, who came to the United States at age 9 with his mother and went on to graduate Florida State University College of Law with honors. He was in the House chamber when the bill passed and got direct shoutouts from Republican leadership at the time.”

“DeSantis is also pushing lawmakers to require all Florida employers to use the E-Verify system, a federal database that allows employers to check workers’ employment status. During DeSantis’ first term, he pushed for universal E-Verify but that was opposed by the state’s business lobby. The bill lawmakers approved only required public employers to use the system.”

“DeSantis’ immigration package also includes:

Making it a third-degree felony to “transport, conceal, or harbor illegal aliens,” and a second-degree felony if the person being transported is a minor.
Mandating that hospitals collect data on the immigration status of patients and submit reports on costs associated with providing care to undocumented immigrants.
Requiring people registering to vote check a box affirming they are U.S. citizens and Florida residents.
Prohibiting local governments from issuing ID cards to unauthorized aliens and invalidating out-of-state licenses issued to unauthorized aliens.”

DeSantis wants to roll back press freedoms — with an eye toward overturning Supreme Court ruling

“At the governor’s urging, Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature is pushing to weaken state laws that have long protected journalists against defamation suits and frivolous lawsuits. The proposal is part DeSantis’ ongoing feud with media outlets like The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN and The Washington Post — media companies he claims are biased against Republicans — as he prepares for a likely 2024 presidential bid.

Beyond making it easier to sue journalists, the proposal is also being positioned to spark a larger legal battle with the goal of eventually overturning New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits public officials’ ability to sue publishers for defamation, according to state Rep. Alex Andrade, the Florida Republican sponsoring the bill.”

“the proposed bill goes further than simply decrying media bias. Free-press advocates call the measure unconstitutional and suggest it could have far-reaching consequences beyond major media outlets.
“I have never seen anything remotely like this legislation,” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “I can’t say I have seen every bill ever introduced, but I’d be quite surprised if any state Legislature had seriously considered such a brazen and blatantly unconstitutional attack on speech and press freedoms.”

He added: “This bill is particularly remarkable since its provisions have the vocal support of a governor and likely presidential candidate.”

DeSantis’ office said he “will make a decision on the merits of the bill in final form if and when it passes and is delivered to the governor’s office.””

“Andrade’s proposal incorporates many of the elements DeSantis called for during the roundtable, including:

— allowing plaintiffs who sue media outlets for defamation to collect attorneys fees;

— adding a provision to state law specifying that comments made by anonymous sources are presumed false for the purposes of defamation lawsuits;

— lowering the legal threshold for a “public figure” to successfully sue for defamation;

— repealing the “journalist’s privilege” section of state law, which protects journalists from being compelled to do things like reveal the identity of sources in court, for defamation lawsuits.

Stern said 49 states and several appellate circuits recognize a reporter’s privilege against court-compelled disclosure of source material and stressed that it’s essential for people to be able to speak to reporters without risking their jobs or freedoms.

“Journalists do not work for the government and it’s none of the government’s business how journalists gather news,” he added.

Andrade, however, said the privilege language in his bill would not allow a judge to force a journalist to reveal an anonymous source, but removes existing protections if they decide not to.”

““The law protects journalists from being ‘compelled’ by judges to disclose anonymous sources, but if a journalist has been sued for defamation, and wants to avoid liability, this section makes clear that they cannot claim a special privilege to avoid disclosing the source of the defamatory information and also avoid liability,” Andrade said.

Critics of the bill took issue with the section about attorneys fees, saying it could add a financial incentive to file defamation lawsuits and erode the laws preventing retaliatory lawsuits filed to silence criticism. Florida, like other states, has anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws designed to help stop frivolous lawsuits.

“One of my largest concerns with the bill is the rolling back of the anti-SLAPP protection for defamation defendants,” said Adam Schulman, a senior attorney with the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute, which advocates for free markets, free speech and limited governments. ”That’s just moving in the wrong direction.”

He said beyond large media companies, some of which have legal teams, the changes could affect the “ordinary guy” who leaves an “unfavorable Yelp review.”

“At one time, it was not considered ‘conservative’ to advocate for turning on the spigot to all sorts of troll-like civil litigation that will line the pockets of bottom-feeding plaintiffs’ lawyers,” Schulman said.

Stern said the new bill would leave those protections “toothless.” Under most anti-SLAPP laws, individuals can recover attorneys’ fees if they can show they were sued in retaliation for criticizing the government.”