If Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ever sets up a presidential exploratory committee, it should have to disclose an enormous in-kind contribution from CBS News.
The “60 Minutes” segment last weekend alleging that DeSantis distributed the Covid vaccine through pharmacies at the Publix grocery store chain as part of a quid pro quo was so outlandishly wrong that even Democratic officials in the state have objected.
It’s not clear that the “60 Minutes” piece can even be called “journalistic malpractice,” since it barely qualifies as journalism.
Florida turned to the widely popular Publix chain because, as Florida’s emergency management director (a Democrat) explained, other pharmacies weren’t ready to start distribution yet. The mayor of Palm Beach County, another Democrat, has said the county specifically requested that the state expand its Publix partnership to Palm Beach. “60 Minutes” left this out.
It also deceptively edited an answer DeSantis gave to a question from a “60 Minutes” journalist about Publix at a press conference, removing his persuasive and detailed explanation why the supposed scandal is a nonstory, but leaving in his angry denials.
The downside for DeSantis is that he’s been smeared by the most iconic news magazine show on American television; the upside is that this latest, swiftly debunked media attack contributes to his ongoing ascent in the Republican political firmament.
It’s much too early to know with any certainty what the post-Trump GOP will look like, or even if there will be a genuinely post-Trump GOP for years. But if a post-Trump GOP looks like Ron DeSantis, who has a populist edge and is combative with the press, yet is unquestionably serious about governing and is succeeding in the third-most populous state in the nation, it will have landed in a favorable place.
DeSantis has navigated the Trump years with a deft political touch. He hasn’t gotten tripped up trying to walk a tightrope on Trump, the way Nikki Haley has, or seemed constantly to be trying too hard to please Trump voters, the way Senator Josh Hawley has, or told Trump partisans to pound sand, the way Senator Ben Sasse has.
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He obviously went out of his way to identify himself with Trump at the outset of his gubernatorial run in 2018, but it wasn’t a Matt Gaetz-style play to gain cable TV notoriety and become a Trump-world celebrity for its own sake.
DeSantis took the boost he got from Trump’s support, won a contested Republican primary, and then captured the Florida governorship with a clear idea of what he wanted do with it—indeed, near the end of his first year, prior to the pandemic, he had a 72 percent approval rating.
The governor checks key Trumpian boxes. Trump’s supporters want someone who is a fighter, who gives as good as he gets with the media, and has the right enemies.
DeSantis has had to punch through media hostility from the beginning and had notable throw-downs with antagonistic reporters prior to the “60 Minutes” episode taking it to another level.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the media has been determined to paint DeSantis as a villain flouting science to the detriment of his constituents. Actually, he had a considered approach focused on protecting the most vulnerable in the nursing homes and taking a light touch on government restrictions to try to get through the pandemic with a minimum of economic damage. Any fair reading of the evidence—Florida has a death rate that’s about the national average, while its economy is in much better shape than New York’s and California’s—has to concede that at the very least this was an entirely reasonable strategy.
DeSantis has, rightly, been fierce in defending his record, but never gives the sense, as Trump often did, that fighting with the media is a good thing in its own right, over and above any substantive considerations.
If the rise of DeSantis is a Trump-era phenomenon, his record is rooted in traditional conservative priorities—textualist judges, school choice, tax cuts, spending restraint and law and order. He also has a more pragmatic side, increasing teacher pay even as he has pushed for educational reforms and pursuing a robust environmental agenda.
It always a fool’s errand forecasting a presidential race three years before it begins in earnest. Trump may decide to run again in 2024 and blot out the sun, and DeSantis has to win reelection in 2022.
On paper, though, he has obvious strength as a potential national candidate. He’s from a hugely important swing state. He’s been battle-tested—he won a brawl of a race in 2018, trailing in the polls throughout. He would perhaps be the only major candidate in 2024 holding an executive office, while his governing record would, in theory, allow him to appeal not just to the hardcore, but also to the key category of “somewhat conservative” voters in GOP primaries.
Certainly, “60 Minutes” has done its part.