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Analysis | DeSantis capitalizes on the US divisions as he prepares for the 2024 campaign


In his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama famously said, “There is no liberal America or a conservative America. There is the United States of America.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) disagrees.

In preparation for a possible 2024 presidential campaign, DeSantis has delivered three notable speeches this year: his second inaugural address; a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum; and, most recently, his State of the State address.

What has emerged is a message of the primacy of the red state (mostly in Florida) and the inferiority of the blue state, of what he describes as Florida’s culture of freedom and anti-vigilance in contrast to the failing left-wing government in blue states and the threat to freedom of a “biomedical security state” imposed by Washington.

If Obama’s rhetoric was ambitious at best (the country was already polarized and became even more so during his presidency), then DeSantis’ message is confrontational, framed as a conflict to be won outright. Talk of national unity, the currency of many successful presidential candidates, is fleeting to non-existent. He revels in the country’s left-right divisions instead of providing a way out.

DeSantis is former President Donald Trump’s most serious challenger for the 2024 Republican nomination, but as he travels to states with contests in early 2024, he’s still gaining a foothold as a national candidate. For example, his views on foreign policy are not well known. In a statement to Fox News last week, he described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” in which US involvement was not in the interests of the country’s national security.

The statement, which contrasted with more aggressive views of Ukraine and Russia in the past, brought him into the Trumpian camp on US-Russia relations (Trump was notoriously soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin). Some fellow Republicans sharply criticized DeSantis. The Wall Street Journal editorial, whose editors prefer Trump not to be the 2024 GOP nominee, called the statement DeSantis’s “first big mistake.”

DeSantis doesn’t want to talk about what he doesn’t want to talk about. He gives few media interviews. When recently pressed by The Times of London, Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, to explain his views on Ukraine, he said: “Maybe you should discuss something else? I think I’ve said enough.”

He has made himself a force in Republican politics through the way he has governed Florida. He won praise for controlling the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian. During the pandemic, he opposed federal government recommendations during the Trump presidency by opposing prolonged business and school closures and opposing masks and vaccine mandates.

“When the world went mad, when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a sanctuary of common sense, a citadel of freedom for people in the United States and even around the world,” he said at the Reagan Library . “We refused to allow our state to slide into some kind of Faucian dystopia [referring to Anthony Fauci, the now-retired infectious-disease specialist]where people’s rights were curtailed and their livelihoods destroyed.”

He has become more aggressive over time on pandemic issues, including an attitude of vaccine skepticism.

He is perhaps best known for addressing culture war issues, including what may or may not be taught in schools and colleges about race in American history and LGBTQ issues. He has used the power of the state government to influence the behavior of private companies in a way that few free-market conservatives have done. In the most celebrated case, he took on the Walt Disney Company, which had sued him over legislation prohibiting the teaching of gender and identity issues to young schoolchildren.

On immigration, he sent two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to emphasize his disdain for the Biden administration’s border policies. In Florida, he is trying to end a policy that allows undocumented resident students, many of whom were brought to the United States as children by their parents, to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities. That policy was signed by his predecessor, Republican Rick Scott, now a member of the Senate. DeSantis says the proposed change is an inflation-fighting move.

DeSantis is hugely popular in his home state, winning re-election by 19 percentage points. Republicans elsewhere are eager to pass his measure. In his State of the State address, he said of his governance style: “We defied the experts. We beat the elites, we ignored the chatter, we did it our way, the Florida way. … We don’t make excuses, we don’t complain, we just get results.”

Contempt for the blue states speaks through his rhetoric. Other states “crushed their citizens” while Florida lifted them up, he said in his inaugural address. Other states “consigned their people’s freedom to the dustbin”, while Florida was “strongly the linchpin of freedom”.

He points to Florida’s population growth and credits his leadership during the pandemic as a catalyst for the shift. “I think the pandemic caused people to reevaluate who was in charge of their state governments more than any other event in my life,” he said.

Population movement to the Sun Belt is a decades old story, but Florida’s recent growth is nonetheless remarkable. According to figures from Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, Florida has gained more residents through internal migration than any other state in the past three years. California, New York and Illinois – favorite targets of the governor – led the nation in population loss.

“This is a result of better governance in states like Florida, and it was a result of bad governance in these leftist states,” DeSantis said at the Reagan Library.

While the states he cited have lost population, it should be noted that California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) won his reelection by 18 points and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker by 13 points. New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) won her election with six points less.

In the next two months, DeSantis wants to expand his resume with legislative accomplishments he can take into a presidential campaign. On the agenda is a focus on infrastructure and housing to support the growing population, more money for teachers and efforts to weaken the power of the teachers’ union, efforts to lower drug prices and a focus on environmental conservation. He also wants a significant tax cut. The Florida legislature is considering banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. DeSantis says it welcomes such legislation.

In Florida, DeSantis has been able to chart its course without serious opposition. The Democratic Party is weak there and the Republicans have a firm grip on the legislature. If he becomes president, DeSantis would face a divided Congress and a more challenging political culture — a culture that has frustrated presidents of both parties, who believed their experience as governors gave them the knowledge and tools to deal with the legislature. to go.

Successful presidential candidates often vote off a general election message at the start of a candidacy. They may be tweaking that message as they navigate the ideological contours of the nomination contest, but they’re keeping an eye on the broader electorate. DeSantis in these early days seems to have tailored his message primarily to his party’s base, and perhaps most importantly, the Trumpian base. Whether he has a more unifying or uplifting message remains to be seen. Maybe he doesn’t see the need.

None of this is to say that DeSantis can’t run for president. Trump proved that divisive rhetoric is no barrier to winning a general election (although he lost the popular vote in both his winning and losing campaigns). DeSantis is anathema to many Democrats, but a DeSantis-Biden campaign would represent both an ideological difference (characterized by the opposing camps as the awake left versus the MAGA right), and as a generational contrast between a president in his early 80s and a governor mid forties.

To get to that contest, however, DeSantis must first defeat Trump for the Republican nomination. What he does and says now seems to have been built entirely with that competition in mind. There is great interest in his potential candidacy and his message resonates well with this Republican audience, which is why Trump is attacking him. But he’s still making the transition from state to national politics, and his us-vs-them rhetoric looks like a recipe for conflict and division should he become the next president.

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