I do not consider myself a big Ronald Reagan fan, but I’m willing to give credit where credit is due.
President Reagan was a policy guy. (That I disagree with the wisdom and effectiveness of many of his policies is beside the point.) He had big ideas on how to fight communism and grow the economy. He was a traditional conservative: shrink the government and keep it out of Americans’ lives. He understood that politics is the art of compromise. He worked across the aisle to pass bipartisan legislation on taxes, immigration, and social security.
And while it is often left out of Reagan lore, he even raised taxes in later years after his massive 1981 tax cuts led to mounting deficits—an example of Reagan being practical even though it contradicted his tax-cutting image. As a former actor (and perhaps as a former Democrat), Reagan had to work hard to show voters he was a serious public policy thinker and not just a theatrical performer.
Times have changed. Enter Ron DeSantis: the Florida governor and presidential contender who has reduced governance to performance art.
He’s the newest star of the Republican silver screen, and his recent, fictional portrayal of an actual statesman is worth critiquing at a time when our politics have blurred the line between showmanship and substance. DeSantis has mastered the Art of the Trump. He represents the newest model of the reality TV politician—full of political stunts but devoid of serious policy.
DeSantis has risen to national prominence as governor of what he calls the “free state of Florida.” But that freedom is a mirage, and it conceals the failures lurking beneath the surface while the rights of Floridians are taken away.
For starters, DeSantis’ national profile grew tremendously during the COVID pandemic, but in fact he cast himself in two different roles in that production: he initially closed down businesses and schools, and he established highway and airport checkpoints to monitor travelers entering Florida. Later, he went to the opposite extreme: lifting those same restrictions and interfering with municipalities as they addressed the pandemic.
“DeSantis has risen to national prominence as governor of what he calls the ‘free state of Florida.’ But that freedom is a mirage…”
Changing one’s approach to COVID based on the emerging data is certainly defensible, but DeSantis’ policy was mostly political gamesmanship and inflammatory rhetoric, from convening a statewide grand jury to “investigate” vaccines, to hiring as surgeon general a controversial doctor who has spread debunked medical theories about vaccines. DeSantis even called for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be thrown into the Potomac.
As part of his act, DeSantis boasts about Florida’s economic success and the state’s budget surplus but ignores the inconvenient truth that federal stimulus dollars—which he criticizes—helped fund it.
His supporters portray him as a fighter—someone who doesn’t back down from a tough challenge. But in reality, DeSantis is afraid of tough questions, rarely granting interviews to most media outlets other than far-right journalists who lob softballs, and he often refuses to answer reporters at all during press conferences.
DeSantis’ favorite theatrical routine is fanning the flames of the culture war: passing a six-week abortion ban, anti-“woke” legislation (whatever that means), and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law; attacking Disney, the Special Olympics, and social media companies; suspending a twice-elected prosecutor; and transporting Texas migrants to Massachusetts while claiming with a straight face that it was somehow done to protect Floridians.
Many of the controversial laws he has championed have been held unconstitutional; others are still being challenged in court. A federal judge threw out his “Stop WOKE Act,” calling it “positively dystopian.”
Another federal judge found he violated both state and federal law in suspending me from my elected position as Tampa’s local prosecutor for political reasons and publicity.
None of that appears to matter to DeSantis, who rattles off these so-called accomplishments during stump speeches, in spite of the fact that they have been found to violate the fundamental freedoms of the citizens whose rights he has sworn to uphold.
DeSantis’ willingness to violate people’s constitutional rights to grab a headline (or a primetime interview on Fox News) is scary, but the real danger is that he has reduced serious political discourse to the public policy equivalent of the class clown.
DeSantis is a Harvard and Yale graduate—a guy smart enough to know better, but acting the fool. Governance involves complex issues of public policy. It requires identifying problems, developing and implementing solutions, making difficult choices, explaining those choices to your constituents, and being truthful about your successes as well as your failures. DeSantis has built his political career by largely doing the opposite.
As a member of Congress for six years—during a period when his Republican Party held a majority in the House—the only legislation that DeSantis authored which became law was a one-sentence amendment to a 2018 appropriation bill that prohibited the Defense Department from buying heavy water from Iran. That may have been a sensible tweak, but it is not exactly “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in its ambition.
As governor, his legislative victories are mostly culture war issues that have energized his base, but have had minimal impact on the kitchen table issues that concern most Floridians, as well as most Americans.
The microscope of a presidential campaign will pull back the curtain on who DeSantis is and what he has (and has not) done. I am not sure that the specter of a DeSantis presidency has President Reagan turning over in his grave, but the Gipper would certainly agree that these are serious times for serious leaders—not for pretenders just playing them on TV.
Andrew Warren was elected State Attorney of Hillsborough County, Florida in 2016 and re-elected in 2020. In August 2022, Warren was unlawfully suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis for speaking out against laws criminalizing abortion and discriminating against transgender Americans—a federal court found that the suspension violated the U.S. and Florida Constitutions but said it lacked the jurisdiction to reinstate him. Warren’s legal fight against DeSantis remains ongoing.