Having established that conservatives and Republicans would have to be brain-damaged to nominate Donald Trump for president again, the question now becomes who we should pick instead as our 2024 standard-bearer. As evidenced by the fact that Trump got nominated the first time, the GOP talent pool is usually slim pickings, to say the least.
Fortunately, this time around we have a Republican who for years has been proving himself an aggressive, effective leader, a genuine movement conservative, and a skillful communicator. Someone with all of Trump’s perceived strengths and none of his fatal defects: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Results, Results, Results
First and most importantly, DeSantis’s record reads like a conservative Christmas list, a collection of results almost too good to be real. Let’s start with an excerpt from a March 2019 rundown by Deroy Murdock:
• DeSantis pioneered Florida Deregathon — a one-day summit in which agency heads targeted red tape, especially in occupational licensing. While eye surgeons and airline pilots should certify their competence, why do nail polishers and boxing timekeepers need Tallahassee’s permission to work? Florida’s 1,200-hour training requirement for new barbers, for instance, stymies competition by boosting costs and headaches for new entrants.
DeSantis summoned the chiefs of 23 professional-licensing boards to Orlando to “discuss, debate, identify and recommend substantive regulations that can be targeted for immediate elimination,” as his letter told these officials. “I see this event as a first step toward creating a regulatory climate as welcoming as the Florida sunshine.”
• DeSantis signed an executive order instructing the commissioner of education to “eliminate Common Core (Florida Standards) and ensure we return to the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic” and “equip high school graduates with sufficient knowledge of America’s civics, particularly the principles reflected in the United States Constitution, so as to be capable of discharging the responsibilities associated with American citizenship.” DeSantis also supports legislation to expand school vouchers.
• DeSantis demands accountability. He accepted the resignation of Broward County elections director Brenda Snipes and Susan Bucher, her Palm Beach County counterpart, for their spectacular incompetence, if not corruption. DeSantis called Bucher’s operation “the Keystone Kops of election administration.”
He also sacked Broward County sheriff Scott Israel for totally bungling the deadly Parkland mass shooting in February 2018, then exacerbating that toxic failure with a deluge of finger-pointing and a drought of self-criticism.
• DeSantis replaced the entire South Florida Water Management District with appointees not beholden to the heavily subsidized sugar industry — a notorious polluter whose fertilizer, pesticides, and other agrochemicals befoul Florida’s waterways. DeSantis was one of only three members of Florida’s 27-member U.S. House delegation who voted last May to curb the disastrous sugar program. DeSantis’s appointees should make Big Sugar clean up its bitter harvest.
• DeSantis’s tax proposal is modest, but it steers levies the right way: down. His budget cuts taxes $335 million: $289.7 million in property-tax reductions; a three-day, $39.5 million back-to-school sales-tax holiday; and a one-week, $5.8 million disaster-preparedness sales-tax holiday before hurricane season.
It cannot be stressed enough that DeSantis did all of the above in just the first two months of his governorship, during which we can already see a key contrast between him and Trump: DeSantis came in and quickly recognized the need to fire holdovers before they could do additional damage and replace them with subordinates who shared his vision. Trump left in place countless Democrat resisters and saboteurs who undermined his voters’ agenda every step of the way (fun fact: Trump rejected his advisers’ urgings to fire ex-FBI Director James Comey as soon as he took office, and we all know how that turned out), not to mention hiring scores of officials for key posts whom he came to not only regret but detest.
Since then, DeSantis has cut more taxes, cut more spending, strengthened election security, punished election fraud, pioneered legal remedies to internet censorship, banned late-term abortions, required parental consent for minors’ abortions, worked to defund Planned Parenthood and stop the illegal distribution of abortion pills, ousted a prosecutor for refusing to enforce pro-life laws, barred men from women’s athletics, toughened penalties for rioting, banned localities from restricting gun rights, allowed more teachers to undergo training to carry guns on school grounds, banned sanctuary cities, sent Florida law enforcement to Texas and Arizona to help secure the southern border, shipped illegal immigrants to leftist enclaves that advocate open borders mandated E-Verify for public employers and government contractors, banned anti-Semitic propaganda in public education, strengthened transparency and parental consent for sex education in public schools, cracked down on foreign influence in higher education, signed laws requiring that high schools teach the evils of communism & totalitarianism, that colleges make civic literacy a condition of graduation, and requiring colleges to conduct annual assessments of intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity on their campuses; embarked on a comprehensive purging of woke indoctrination from public education, required schools to provide silent time students can use for daily prayer if they so choose, banned transgender mutilation of children, punished venues that expose children to pornographic drag displays, taken the lead in a multi-state effort against leftist hijacking of corporations, ended Disney’s self-governing sweetheart deal with the state, banned localities from giving the environment legal rights (yes, that’s a thing leftists actually want to do), prevented the state pension system from investing in companies complicit in the anti-Israel “boycott, divestment, & sanctions” (BDS) campaign, curbed China’s ability to buy influence in Florida, and more.
As we speak, DeSantis is gearing up for an ambitious legislative session that is slated to deliver expansions of school choice, the Parental Rights in Education law against LGBT indoctrination, and E-Verify to the private sector; banning forced deduction of union dues from paychecks, legalizing concealed carry, tort reform, strengthening private citizens’ ability to sue media outlets for defamation, beefing up the Office of Election Crimes and Security, allowing tenure reviews of faculty in public academia, banning abortion once a baby has a heartbeat, a Digital Bill of Rights ranging from data privacy to online censorship to child exploitation, protecting doctors who dissent from the federal health bureaucracy, and legislatively codifying various aforementioned reforms that currently exist as executive actions. [NOTE: this section may be continually updated as more wins accumulate.]
Name a current or recent elected Republican who has pursued or delivered a more comprehensive conservative agenda. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Leadership in a Time of Corona
Even if DeSantis hadn’t prioritized tackling so many problems of grave concern to conservatives, his response to the COVID-19 outbreak alone arguably would have been enough to secure his standing as the best executive-branch leader in America. As Daniel Horowitz summarized in May 2020:
They said DeSantis was killing his state’s people by not issuing a stay-at home order early enough and never issuing a full lockdown against church services and other activities. Then, on May 4, he decided to end even the tepid lockdown. Last in, first out. What are the results?
Despite the fact that Florida is the haven for those most susceptible to the virus, the elderly, the state’s numbers beat almost every comparable state […]
While it wasn’t as cool and heroic as locking up every healthy person with near-zero risk in their homes, DeSantis quietly barred hospitals from sending COVID-positive patients to nursing homes – the exact opposite of what Cuomo and many Democrat governors did. He also used the National Guard to secure nursing homes rather than to spy on people.
In New Jersey, 51 senior care residents out of every 100,000 people died. In New York, nearly 27 per 100,000 have died. Even in smaller and younger Colorado, more than 10 nursing home residents have died per capita. In Florida? Just 3.5 per 100,000. In the state of “God’s waiting room,” just .008% of the population died of COVID-19.
DeSantis was even pressured by the White House to go along with the flat-earth lockdown science. But he understood that the threat of the virus is limited to a known population and that outdoor transmission is negligible. So he put his resources where they were needed.
Florida’s COVID numbers were so impressive that, as Horowitz notes, leftists were reduced to falsely accusing DeSantis of cooking the books to explain them away. In March 2021, even the Associated Press admitted that California’s vastly more restrictive policies didn’t save more lives than Florida’s targeted, freedom-friendly approach, despite Florida’s large elderly population. On top of the health outcomes, DeSantis’s leadership saved hundreds of thousands of jobs and spared his state the large-scale destruction of businesses that plagued the rest of the country (despite Florida’s tourism industry being particularly vulnerable to the fear of travel that gripped the rest of the country).
Along the way, DeSantis defended the rights and choices of Floridians from the COVID maniacs, undaunted by the wailing of the media: standing against school closings, vaccine passports, mask mandates, and local lockdowns; pardoning those persecuted by rogue localities, suing the Biden administration over its ban on the cruise ship industry, and embracing therapeutics such as hydroxychloroquine and monoclonal antibodies.
Admittedly, DeSantis was initially supportive of the Trump administration’s rushed COVID vaccines (albeit focused on prioritizing them for the elderly, who faced the greatest risk from COVID itself and for whom vaccination therefore seemed the most reasonable at the time). Fortunately, as the data against them has grown clearer, he has gotten on the right side of the issue, including calling out their ineffectiveness, recommending against them, and even petitioning for a grand jury investigation of their manufacturers.
The COVID-19 pandemic—more specifically, the resulting panic and exploitation thereof—was one of the biggest tests of leadership in a generation. More so than any other sitting governor (despite what you may have heard about South Dakota’s Kristi Noem) or former president, DeSantis aced it.
A Full-Spectrum, Non-Establishment Conservative
The above already paints a reasonably broad cross-section of DeSantis’s conservatism, from fiscal to social to liberty issues. Still, it’s worth noting some highlights from his pre-gubernatorial career, which show he’s also rock-solid on issues beyond what he’s had to deal with as a state governor, and that he’s long been on the right side of the divide between the Republican Party’s leadership and its grassroots.
An inaugural member of the House Freedom Caucus, Congressman DeSantis introduced legislation to empower states to ban investment in Iran, ban post-government lobbying by scores of ex-government officials, force members of Congress to use the same health care plans Congress would force on the public, ensure Americans could keep their pre-Obamacare health plans, prohibit recognition of and foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority unless and until it truly reformed (including but not limited to allowing free elections, recognizing Israel’s right to exist, ending its boycotts of Israel, ending its promotion of and support for terrorism, and dismantling Hamas), force the Justice Department to answer to Congress for failure to enforce federal law, and ban foreign aid to countries that receive Guantanamo Bay detainees only to let them to return to the battlefield.
While in Congress, DeSantis also cosponsored and/or voted for the full range of conservative priorities, including the REINS Act, Kate’s Law, right to work, concealed carry reciprocity, defunding Planned Parenthood, reforming the Veterans Administration, withholding funding from the United Nations’ “Human Rights” Council and climate agenda, and letting states opt out of No Child Left Behind, as well as backing enough tax and spending cuts to earn the title of “Taxpayer Super Hero” from Citizens Against Government Waste.
Additionally, during his House tenure DeSantis distinguished himself as willing to call out establishment GOP leaders such as Trump’s onetime friend and ally Paul Ryan for ducking the fights that needed to be fought. In April 2016, DeSantis was among the Republicans pushing to impeach IRS commissioner John Koskinen over the agency’s targeting of conservative Americans for political persecution.
“I think what’s holding it back, I think the leadership is worried about being criticized by inside the Beltway media and stuff,” DeSantis told Breitbart at the time. “We are going to try to force the issue potentially in a way that at least people have to go on the record […] I think the American people are so sick of, you know, government imposes all these rules on them and if they run afoul to it there are consequences, yet, the people in positions of power, they are never held accountable and that just cannot last.”
DeSantis was also among the conservatives who recognized that the House GOP’s Ryan-backed first stab at an Obamacare replacement wasn’t good enough because it, as he said, “retain[ed] the core features of Obamacare.” Trump, by contrast, attacked the DeSantis wing of the party for holding out for a better bill, because Trump just wanted to sign something he could take credit for. Patient attention to detail: what a concept!
He Fights! …Competently
Some of Trump’s greatest strengths, we were told, were his ability to stick it to the Left rhetorically, his talent for channeling and reflecting the perennially-neglected feelings of the GOP base, his knack for speaking bluntly in a way that was both entertaining and free of the faux civility that defines most of the stuffed-shirt Republicans in national office. And that was all true, as far as it went…it just didn’t go far enough to win a second term, #BuildTheWall, #DrainTheSwamp, #StopTheSteal, #LockHerUp, or get Congress to go along with any of the other legislative objectives we elected him for.
There are two basic reasons for that: because lacking a filter can be a double-edged sword, leaving one just as likely to say stupid, self-damaging things as to speak harsh truths; and because talking a good game is no substitute for the principles, knowledge, and skills needed to translate words into action.
Fortunately, here too DeSantis runs circles around Trump. In public appearances he regularly displays a clear, conversational style that makes the issues easy to understand, reveals a strong command of the facts, forcefully frames the stakes and identifies the guilty parties in our current debates, and eviscerates fake news more effectively than Trump ever did…and all without making a fool of himself, generating distractions from the objective, or sparking endless inane arguments about taking him “seriously versus literally”:
Whereas Trump impotently blustered about media outlets’ ratings while repeatedly giving prestigious liberal reporters in-depth interviews, DeSantis effectively conveys how little respect the corporate media really deserves, from treating conservative and alternative outlets as the legitimate press while branding dishonest mainstream outlets as smear merchants to be shunned.
Add it all up, and you have a rare political talent capable of turning a razor-thin victory into a nearly-twenty-point landslide reelection in the most populous swing state in the nation, complete with inroads among historically Democrat-supporting areas and ethnic groups—all while selling undiluted conservatism. It would be political malpractice of the highest order not to apply that talent nationally.
His Own Man
One of the most important differences between DeSantis and Trump can be found within an especially-lame attempted hit published by Politico in May 2021:
RON DESANTIS is looking ahead to reelection next year and quite possibly a 2024 bid for president — but he’s left behind a trail of former disgruntled staffers and has no long-standing political machine to mount a national campaign, DeSantis vets say.
We talked to a dozen or so onetime aides and consultants to the Florida governor, and they all said the same thing: DeSantis treats staff like expendable widgets. He largely relies on a brain trust of two: himself and his wife, CASEY DESANTIS, a former local TV journalist. Beyond that there are few, if any, “DeSantis people,” as far as political pros are concerned.
Yes, DeSantis recently hired highly regarded operative PHIL COX. But there’s no savant that he’s been through the trenches with, like a KARL ROVE or DAVID AXELROD — let alone an army of loyalists. That’s probably not fatal to his White House prospects, but it can’t help.
To the Swamp, few things are more horrifying than insufficient regard for themselves. But to those not easily cowed by the complaints of disgruntled staffers (who are naturally going to dislike a boss who doesn’t hang on their every word), there’s a different takeaway here:
Wait, so DeSantis accomplished all of the above without consultants or pollsters having to tell him what to do?
His stellar record isn’t the result of a PowerPoint presentation or taking direction from handlers. It comes from his own values and instincts, from not just listening to conservatives’ concerns but understanding them on a personal level because he shares them. From caring enough about problems to figure out solutions. This, perhaps more so than anything else, explains why he’s a cut above most Republicans and offers genuine assurance that his decision-making will continue to be generally solid.
After Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, one might have reasonably expected political insiders to have learned that rejection of their swampiest priorities and tendencies was what their constituents wanted. But one of the biggest ironies of the era is that not even Trump learned this from Trump. Despite having certain stylistic instincts and perhaps an insight or two about the base that served him well, on policy his advisers constantly led him around by the nose, to disastrous effect.
Ron DeSantis obviously does not have that problem.
Cautions and Caveats
None of the above is to suggest DeSantis is flawless, and it’s essential that his supporters remain clear-eyed about his missteps, which so far have been rare but do exist.
Last year he signed an extension of a COVID-related medical liability shield that yours truly criticized at the time, and while fears of unintended consequences seem not to have materialized and its potential downsides seem to be negated by his many other positive COVID actions, his office never gave a straight answer to critics’ concerns—perhaps because they felt they could get away with ignoring them.
More recently, he gave Tucker Carlson a position statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine that, while careful to avoid disavowing any defensive aid to Ukraine or U.S. interest in the conflict, strongly implied a reversal of the clear-eyed understanding of Russia’s ambitions and the importance of checking its aggression that DeSantis articulated while in Congress, replete with gratuitous lines that he surely knows are nonsense but he apparently felt were necessary to appease the frothing quasi-isolationist voices that currently dominate conservative media (it’s worth noting that he later gave a better answer to Piers Morgan).
As a pure matter of policy substance, I remain confident that DeSantis would execute a prudent, Reaganite foreign policy in line with his congressional record if he becomes president, and that his answer to Carlson was a mere political calculation to help him through the GOP presidential primary. But therein lies the problem.
It was a rare instance of DeSantis following rather than leading, and in one fell swoop, it confirmed that, at least to some extent, he is willing to put political calculation above principled authenticity in his public statements. That he is not above pandering, and that he fears the isolationist bloc enough to recklessly give his opponents an opening to credibly accuse him of flip-flopping, in the process undermining the air of unshakable, confident conservative principle that is so integral to his political identity—all to satiate a faction that will most likely stay mostly with Trump anyway, while potentially shaking the confidence of more serious-minded voters (and donors) hungry for new blood.
Managing Expectations and the Citizen-Candidate Relationship
As alarmed and disappointed as this observer was by DeSantis’s unforced blunder on the issue, his overall legeder remains incredibly lopsided. Of course he is clearly still the best candidate currently available to us and would be a tremendous president. But there is a silver lining to seeing a promising candidate get a screw-up out of the way early. It reminds us that our politicians, even the best ones we ultimately embrace, are not demigods or superheroes (as Trump so desperately wants to be seen as) to be worshiped and unconditionally defended, but fallible humans to be supported, used, and worked with but also to be constantly scrutinized with realistic expectations and occasionally chastised to steer in better directions.
It’s okay to admit that our picks are still capable of mistakes, even big ones. One of the reasons Trump never improved was because his fans and allies never forced him to; instead talk radio fed him and his fans a steady diet of adulation signaling that his performance was good enough and that there was always an excuse for his failures. If conservative media had been more ruthlessly demanding instead of giving in to sycophancy, Trump would probably be halfway through his second term right now and DeSantis would have even smoother sailing to the 2024 nomination. It would be an ironic tragedy if, in our zeal to replace Trump, we allowed the same thing to happen to the best (and only) real alternative to him.
This is a lesson the conservative movement desperately needs to re-learn. It was right and necessary to support Trump in the last two general elections (as it will be again if, God forbid, we’re stupid enough to nominate him once more), but that doesn’t mean his ascent didn’t carry serious costs. One is his narcissistic desire to return to the White House despite being a massive electoral liability; another is his army of crackpot fanboys and grifter apologists that spend every day making the discourse on the Right dumber, uglier, more subservient, and less conservative.
A not-insignificant portion of the Right is being habituated to a conception of the individual’s relationship with his elected representatives that is antithetical to the American Founding’s conception of officeholders as servants of fixed principles ultimately accountable to the people, rather than idols served by the people. Now is the time to destroy this trend before it destroys us.
By every honest, objective standard, Ron DeSantis is smarter, more moral, more disciplined, more eloquent, more conservative, more appealing to more voters, and more effective than Donald Trump. He also matches all the other hypothetical 2024 Republican contenders in character, competence, and communication ability, and exceeds all of them in results. On top of his substantial merits, he is also our only realistic option for finally breaking the Trumpian stranglehold on the conservative movement.
Not since Ronald Reagan has the choice been this clear.