Is DeSantis the new Reagan?
During a recent panel discussion on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski — who appear to have a solid understanding of politics — seemed genuinely surprised by the results of the Western Conservative Summit straw poll in which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis not only topped the potential 2024 Republican presidential field but easily beat former President Trump.
Quoting an attendee who had just heard DeSantis speak at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Scarborough — a former Republican congressman from Florida — remarked, “But then this one person said, ‘But, my God, you should have seen the response for Ron DeSantis. He was like a conquering king.’ And this person, who’s been in Republican politics for 40, 45 years, said, ‘I haven’t seen anything like it since Reagan in ’80. He was unbelievable.”
So, if some people are comparing DeSantis to former President Reagan, it begs the questions: How much is he truly like the former president, and which of his policies are Reaganesque?
The highest honor of my professional life was serving as a writer in the Reagan White House. I don’t claim to be an expert on all things Reagan, but we did speak several times while I was there. The most powerful moment for me was when Reagan and I had an emotional conversation in the Oval Office about our alcoholic fathers and the cruelty that one can experience as a child of alcoholic parents.
It was one of the most genuine, caring moments I’ve ever shared with anyone. For that reason alone, for me, comparing someone to Reagan and his public policy is the highest of bars that another Republican elected official could leap.
In our politically polarized nation, many in the media and on the left will never give Reagan any credit for good policy. But for tens of millions of other Americans, Reagan has attained Mount Rushmore status. He’s the stuff of Greek mythology, where no mere mortal politician looks good in comparison.
So, is DeSantis the next Reagan? No. But guess what? He doesn’t have to be. He simply has to be the best version of the one and only Ron DeSantis. He can reach voters by being himself, telling his own life experiences while speaking about his vision and accomplishments.
Some believe that Reagan burst upon the political scene in a transformative way with his 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” remarks he delivered in support of then-GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. It was a speech that well-known Washington Post writer David Broder called “the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with the ‘Cross of Gold’ speech.”
Two points Reagan made in that speech 57 years ago surely resonate today for most conservatives. The first is his warning that “the Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.” In the second point, Reagan underscored that “you and I are told we must choose between left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as left or right. There is only up or down. Up to a man’s age-old dream — the maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”
His warnings, spoken almost six decades ago, may echo loudly in the minds of many Americans today. They’re voters who are waiting to see whether DeSantis or another Republican will use similar themes as a foundation for a national campaign.
“The Speech,” as Reagan called it, introduced him as a politician to the American public when he was 52 years old. In the contest of injecting oneself into a national conversation and debate, DeSantis, at 42, has beaten Reagan by about a decade.
In a number of ways, DeSantis burst onto the national scene because of his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his opposition to a lockdown for the state of Florida. To this point, during the same “Morning Joe” discussion, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said. “What you’ve got is a governor who, for a lot of the base, stood in the breech against the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] onslaught and the requirements and showed his macho that way and quite effectively was able to leverage off of Trump, to some degree, and that’s worked to his advantage.”
To be sure, for some people, it did seem that each week that the virus raged on, DeSantis was growing into his job and as a leader. That’s something many people would not have predicted, given his fairly lackluster tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019.
Before the pandemic, it was hard for some to imagine DeSantis as a blue-collar kid who worked his way through Yale, graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and served in the U.S. Navy. Maybe it took the emergency of the virus to remind DeSantis himself that he did have that life experience to call upon.
Whatever the reason, there appears to have been a real transformation in DeSantis’s public persona, elevating him into discussions about potential presidential contenders in 2024.
Will he get there? Talk is cheap, and presidential politics are now the nastiest ever. That said, DeSantis did just sign a bill that will teach Florida students that “communism is evil.” It’s a move right out of the Reagan playbook.
Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.