Hurricane Ian leads to political whiplash for Ron DeSantis
It’s been a week of political whiplash for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who in a matter of days has gone from top foil to the Biden White House to a willing partner with the president and his team.
It was Sept. 20 when the White House was on alert for the potential that DeSantis was organizing a flight of migrants from Texas to President Biden’s home state of Delaware, his latest move to draw attention to the surge of immigrants at the southern border and what he viewed as the responsibility of blue states to share the burden.
One week later, DeSantis was on the phone with Biden in the first of three calls the two men have held this week to coordinate the response to Hurricane Ian as the storm knocked out power, flooded communities and destroyed homes across the state of Florida.
The seesawing between antagonist and partner comes as DeSantis tries to juggle building up his bona fides among conservatives should he decide to run for president in 2024 — potentially against Biden — and leading his state through what he and others have described as a generational storm.
“DeSantis is showing — though the process is ongoing — that he can play both the political culture warrior and the in-charge governor of the entire state,” former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye said, calling DeSantis a “Trump with substance.”
DeSantis has been a thorn in the side of the Biden administration for the last year-and-a-half, eliciting frequent responses from the White House briefing room podium and at one point last year referring to the Biden administration as the “Brandon administration” in a nod to a popular conservative meme mocking the president.
The White House has sparred with DeSantis over his ban on mask mandates in schools; his support for a law that restricts discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom; and most recently his decision to fly migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.
Those migrant flights were dominating headlines as recently as last week, when DeSantis was arguing the outrage over the flights was disproportionate to the lack of outrage over the millions of migrants who had crossed the border illegally since Biden took office.
When DeSantis was reportedly lining up a flight to take another group of migrants from Texas to Delaware, where Biden regularly spends the weekend, the president responded sarcastically.
“He should come visit. We have a beautiful shoreline,” Biden said.
But much has changed in just over one week, as both men have warned that Hurricane Ian, which made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, poses a grave threat to the residents of much of Florida and could be the deadliest storm in years.
Biden and DeSantis have spoken on the phone three times this week, with the governor praising the assistance of federal partners in getting resources on the ground to aid those without power and shelter.
The quick transition from foil to friendly is the latest in what some have seen as shifts in positions from DeSantis in recent years.
DeSantis’s 2013 opposition to federal funding for New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy has come under scrutiny as he presses for federal assistance to aid Florida in its recovery from Ian.
“When people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when they’ve lost everything, if you can’t put politics aside for that, then you’re just not going to be able to,” DeSantis said on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show this week.
CNN published a story this week that noted DeSantis was urging Floridians to heed the warnings and instructions of some of the same local officials whose guidance he said to ignore early on in the coronavirus pandemic as he pushed for the state to reopen businesses and drop mask mandates.
“Of course there’s a difference between heeding local evacuation orders in an emergency and COVID lockdown overreach. The governor has been clear: this storm must be taken seriously and this is no time for politics or pettiness,” Bryan Griffin, a press secretary for DeSantis, tweeted in response to the story.
Hovering over each of DeSantis’s decisions and statements in recent months has been the potential that he will run for president in 2024, with Biden his likeliest opponent should the governor win the GOP nomination.
The two men appeared side-by-side in the aftermath of the condo collapse in Surfside, Fla., last year, and Biden has indicated he would like to travel to Florida to tour storm damage in the coming days when it would not be a burden on emergency responders.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), however, offers something of a cautionary tale at a time when the country is increasingly polarized. The former governor was hounded during the 2016 GOP primary campaign by attacks that he embraced then-President Obama during a visit in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, forcing Christie to address it head on as a liability with voters.
But strategists believe DeSantis will ultimately benefit politically from showing he can be a strong leader at a time of crisis like a major natural disaster, even if it means publicly appearing with and showing appreciating for Biden.
“Voters have a reasonable expectation that in times of crisis, governors and presidents of different parties have to work together,” Heye said. “Should either party fail to do so, it potentially opens them up to criticism of failing to do their job when voters are in real need. That’s a much bigger problem than a criticism essentially of ‘You did the job of representing all voters too well.’”