Opinion | Campaign

Florida governor adept student of Trump playbook

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The Trump political narrative is confrontational: stay on the offensive, attack critics as radicals or the liberal media, deny any charges, set the factual predicate, no matter the facts.

There is no Republican following this script better than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. "He has been studious in following the Trump playbook," says David Jolly, a former Republican Congressman turned Trump - and DeSantis - critic.

DeSantis appears to command more support among the rank and file than any Republican other than the former president. This, in large part, is driven by his claim to have brushed aside COVID restrictions during the pandemic, opened up his state and achieved unsurpassed success in health and economic outcomes.

Florida "is an oasis of freedom in a nation that's suffering from the yoke of oppressive lockdowns," DeSantis boasts, because he stood up to the elites and liberal media on lockdowns and mask mandates. "Florida got it right."

That's not what the data I'm looking at show. On COVID cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins figures, the state ranks in the bottom half - and is smack in the middle in deaths per capita. Over the first two weeks of June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported, Florida was one of only a few states that showed an increase of COVID cases.

A study published by the American Journal for Preventive Medicine found that states with Republican governors and generally less-restrictive policies, did better in the beginning of the pandemic, while states with Democratic governors, and more stringent policies, caught up and did better after few months. California, a favorite target of conservatives, according to Johns Hopkins statistics, did better than Florida.

Noel Mueller, a professor of epidemiology at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, confirms this. He told me the study, which he co-authored, factored in unique characteristics and biases of states but adds it's not possible to adjust for everything.

Surprisingly, the same pattern may be evident for economic recovery during the pandemic. A study by UCLA economists found that states with more restrictive initial COVID policies are doing slightly better; as people perceive less danger, they open up more. Again, according to the analysis, California did better than Florida. (DeSantis would point to a much lower jobless rate in his state; that was true 15 months ago.)

Overall, it's not that Florida has done poorly on either score. It just hasn't measured up to the governor's claims. It's working for him politically though - he's a clear favorite to win reelection next year. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), possibly the Democrats' strongest statewide candidate next year, opted instead to run against Sen. Marco Rubio.

Despite the facts, the DeSantis message travels. At the right-wing Conservative Political Action Committee forum months ago, he was the 2024 presidential favorite after Trump; there was no one else even close. A Trafalgar Poll showed that if Trump doesn't run, 35 percent of Republicans favor DeSantis. 

The governor has checked all the Trumpian boxes: allowing teachers to carry guns in schools, limiting the voting rights of released felons, outlawing sanctuary cities for undocumented workers (even though Florida doesn't have any such cities), banning transgender girls from participating in sports with women and girls, opposing the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

He revels in attacks on the "liberal media." CBS's "60 minutes" did a segment on the wealthy - including political campaign contributors - having more access in the state to COVID vaccines than others. DeSantis seized on some flaws and effectively attacked the whole piece, turning around what should have been a setback.

"He has positioned himself to be the perfect Trump off ramp; Trump without the baggage," ventures Jolly. Reportedly, DeSantis regularly communicates with Trump, who endorsed him in a 2018 gubernatorial primary, after which, the former president bragged, "He took off like a rocket ship."

DeSantis embraces a faux populism, the most notable forbidding cruise ships, a big industry in Florida, from requiring that passengers be vaccinated, as required by the CDC - threatening them with fines. This could backfire. Cruise ships are potential super-spreaders; one of the first major COVID outbreaks outside of China was on a cruise ship. Our family has enjoyed these cruises, but it would be crazy to go on one without everyone vaccinated.

As a would-be national candidate, DeSantis isn't very likeable; neither was Trump. There is no love lost between the governor and his predecessor, Sen. Rick Scott, also a ruthless operator.

But DeSantis, who has been on the public payroll - the Navy and political office - since law school, is very smart, tough-minded and disciplined. In his three terms in the House, he made few friends but effectively courted the party's big donors.

As Republican politicians make the trek to kiss the ring in Mar-a-Lago, there may be stopovers in Tallahassee.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.