If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ever sets up a presidential exploratory committee, it should have to disclose an enormous in-kind contribution from CBS News.
The “60 Minutes” segment recently alleging that DeSantis distributed the COVID-19 vaccine through pharmacies at the Publix grocery store chain as part of a quid pro quo was so outlandishly wrong that even Democratic officials in the state have objected.
It’s not clear that the “60 Minutes” piece can even be called “journalistic malpractice,” since it barely qualifies as journalism.
The downside for DeSantis is that he’s been smeared by the most iconic news magazine show on American television; the upside is that this latest, swiftly debunked media attack contributes to his ongoing ascent in the Republican political firmament.
It’s much too early to know with any certainty what the post-Trump GOP will look like, or even if there will be a genuinely post-Trump GOP for years. But if a post-Trump GOP looks like Ron DeSantis, who has a populist edge and is combative with the press, yet is unquestionably serious about governing and is succeeding in the third-most populous state in the nation, it will have landed in a favorable place.
DeSantis has navigated the Trump years with a deft political touch. He obviously went out of his way to identify himself with Trump at the outset of his gubernatorial run in 2018, but it wasn’t a Matt Gaetz-style play to gain cable TV notoriety and become a Trump-world celebrity.
DeSantis took the boost he got from Trump’s support, won a contested Republican primary, and then captured the Florida governorship with a clear idea of what he wanted to do with it — indeed, near the end of his first year, prior to the pandemic, he had a 72% approval rating.
The governor checks key Trumpian boxes. Trump’s supporters want someone who is a fighter, who gives as good as he gets with the media, and who has the right enemies.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the media has been determined to paint DeSantis as a villain flouting science to the detriment of his constituents. Actually, he had a considered approach focused on protecting the most vulnerable in the nursing homes and taking a light touch on government restrictions to try to get through the pandemic with a minimum of economic damage. Any fair reading of the evidence — Florida has a death rate that’s about the national average, while its economy is in much better shape than New York’s and California’s — has to concede that, at the very least, this was an entirely reasonable strategy.
DeSantis has rightly been fierce in defending his record, but never gives the sense, as Trump often did, that fighting with the media is a good thing in its own right, over and above any substantive considerations.
If the rise of DeSantis is a Trump-era phenomenon, his record is rooted in traditional conservative priorities — textualist judges, school choice, tax cuts, spending restraint and law and order. He also has a more pragmatic side, increasing teacher pay even as he has pushed for educational reforms and pursuing a robust environmental agenda.
It is always a fool’s errand forecasting a presidential race three years before it begins in earnest. Trump may decide to run again in 2024 and blot out the sun, and DeSantis still has to win reelection in 2022.
On paper, though, he has obvious strength as a potential national candidate. He’s from a hugely important swing state. He’s been battle-tested — he won a brawl of a race in 2018, trailing in the polls throughout. He would perhaps be the only major candidate in 2024 holding an executive office while his governing record would, in theory, allow him to appeal to the key category of “somewhat conservative” voters in GOP primaries, not just to the hardcore.
Certainly, “60 Minutes” has done its part.
Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry