I would like to know Ron DeSantis’ opinions on major policy issues
A boring request before the takes fly
After last week’s midterms, the Great Wheel of Discourse has landed on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But even though he’s been a constant presence in the news for the past few years, I feel like I am missing obvious and crucial pieces of information about him.
It’s perhaps an odd analogy, but I found myself talking recently to a veteran of the Julián Castro presidential campaign and revisiting some of my feelings about that campaign.
Castro’s entire 2020 primary campaign was, I thought, really bad. I disagreed with his whole strategy, and I ended up maybe saying some meaner things than he deserved because I really liked the idea of Julián Castro. I thought that given his record as a pragmatic mayor of San Antonio and as HUD Secretary, he was well-positioned to occupy the Joe Biden lane of the primary and say “Obama was good, we need an ‘heir to Obama’-type nominee.” I think he could have been great, but instead Castro ended up auditioning to be Elizabeth Warren’s Vice President.
What does this have to do with DeSantis? It’s a reminder that what we knew about Castro from his time as mayor and as HUD Secretary really underdetermined how he would run. He ended up taking his campaign in a direction that I found surprising and misguided.
And by somewhat the same token, I think everyone’s impressions of DeSantis are dominated by the positions he staked out during the Covid-19 pandemic. But whatever you think of those decisions, they seem unlikely to be the front-of-mind policy debates in 2023 and 2024 and very unlikely to be top governing priorities in 2025. DeSantis has this superficial appearance of a well-defined national brand, but he hasn’t really taken positions on the kinds of issues that Republicans sometimes disagree about. That’s not a knock on him; there’s no particular reason the governor of Florida should have spent the past four years leaping into controversies about national policy issues. But if you run for president, you have to start talking about your views on national policy issues. What I make of DeSantis as a presidential candidate is going to depend in part on what he says about those issues, and I think it’s odd so many people are staking out clear positions before they hear what that is.
Ron DeSantis seems like an okay politician
Part of what’s weird about this whole conversation is that DeSantis has long occupied a liminal space in intra-conservative battles. DeSantis was an early example of a GOP primary candidate who was put over the top by a Trump endorsement, so he has clear branding as a MAGA-friendly figure. At the same time, when he scored that endorsement, he’d already served several terms in the House of Representatives. And before that, he went to Yale and Harvard Law School and served as a Navy JAG.
So he was a Trump guy, but also a guy with a normal rising star politician resume.
Absent that specific context, it’s a little hard to understand why his star would shine so much brighter than, say, Greg Abbott’s. But if Republicans want to improve their electoral fortunes, they need an alternative to Trump — an actual professional politician with a solid resume and some discipline who would be better at winning elections than a maniac. And it’s the Trump connection, the sense that RDS is a MAGA guy, that makes him an ideal alternative.
Conservative elites have decided en masse that DeSantis’ 2022 performance was amazingly good and a striking rebuke to the losses of Trump-backed candidates in key Senate races. And DeSantis did do very well. But that amounted to doing just as well as Marco Rubio. In Ohio and Georgia, we see GOP gubernatorial candidates do way better than their Senate candidates. In Texas, Abbott in 2022 ran significantly ahead of Trump in 2020. And of course in Nevada, we saw the GOP candidate elected governor even while their Senate candidate lost.
So while DeSantis certainly could be a more effective politician than Trump, he’s also being puffed up with a degree of myth-making that doesn’t really seem justified. Republicans’ best electoral performance last Tuesday was Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, and nobody is talking about him because he’s too moderate. But that raises the question of how conservative DeSantis actually is.
The GOP is in ideological flux
Trump’s gravitational influence on GOP politics has re-written the normal rules of factional division.
In the contemporary GOP, to be conservative means to be pro-Trump. So a very conservative candidate is one who claims to believe the 2020 election was stolen, while a mainstream Republican doesn’t talk about Trump much — but when he does, he says positive things. Brian Kemp in this paradigm is a somewhat moderate Republican because he was put on the spot in 2020 and stood up to Trump. That meant Trump backed a primary challenger to him, but Kemp won.
DeSantis in this view is the ideal mainstream Republican — he has never, ever criticized anything Trump has ever done, no matter how insane or criminal, but he also hasn’t explicitly endorsed the 1/6 riots or efforts to overturn elections. In other words, he’s more conservative than Kemp.
This is different from a traditional paradigm based on policy issues. Kemp responded to the Dobbs decision by pressing forward with a controversial six-week abortion ban, while DeSantis has played it much more cautious with a considerably more moderate 15-week ban.
And the Trump realignment raises lots of these big policy questions. When it came to the votes on trade deals like NAFTA or PNTR with China or DR-CAFTA, you normally saw most (but not all) Republicans in favor and most (but not all) Democrats opposed. Then Trump came along as a spokesperson for the minority faction of Republicans who agreed with most Democrats that these trade deals are bad. Which is to say that in conventional terms, Trump was a moderate. But because conservatism has been redefined in Trumpian terms, I now think an “America First” trade policy might be seen as more conservative than the traditional free market pro-trade view. Similarly, it used to be that hawkishness on foreign policy was a defining feature of the right. It still is in some circumstances. But these days I think the minority of congressional Republicans who are pro-Russia are seen as “more right-wing” than the ones who have traditional Russia hawk views.
Then there’s the confounding question of entitlement programs. Trump ran for president promising not to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. In office, he reversed himself on Medicaid and pushed hard for a Paul Ryan plan to enact draconian cuts. He also repeatedly tried to cut Social Security Disability Insurance. But he did hold the line against cutting Medicare or Social Security old-age benefits. Then after 2018, Trump stopped talking about Medicaid cuts and the Affordable Care Act repeal.
At the same time, Trump is an egomaniac. So the Trumpist faction of the party is defined not by “agreeing with Trump’s relatively moderate stances on entitlement programs” but by “agreeing to condone any kind of crazy shit that Trump does.”
It’s not really clear what DeSantis thinks
DeSantis was in the House for the ACA repeal vote.
If he had his way, insurance companies could return to declining to sell policies to people with pre-existing medical conditions. They could return to doing “rescissions,” retroactively canceling insurance policies once someone gets sick and needs medical care. They could go back to charging women higher premiums than men. They could return to imposing cost-sharing (i.e., higher prices) on preventative care. That bill called not only for undoing the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, but for imposing deep cuts that would make the program smaller than it was pre-Obama.
DeSantis, like most Republicans, hasn’t said much about this agenda in years, but he certainly hasn’t disavowed it or outlined a new vision for health care. And as governor of Florida, he’s been relentlessly hostile to Medicaid expansion.
He also served in Congress during Obama’s second term, when he voted for a few different iterations of Paul Ryan’s budget framework. These budgets cut Pell Grants, they cut SNAP, and they cut discretionary spending across the board — less money for K-12 schools, for police grants and federal law enforcement, less of everything. And those Ryan budgets famously proposed replacing both traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage with a new kind of voucher program that would feature higher unit costs and reduced coverage over time.
Like most Republicans, DeSantis has moved away from those positions without disavowing them. And the agenda continues to be a live item in GOP circles. Some very Trump-aligned candidates in the 2022 cycle, including Blake Masters and Ron Johnson, are big-time Ryanite entitlement cutters. Rick Scott, who is factually neutral, tried to get Senate GOP candidates to unite around a program of subjecting these programs to a five-year reauthorization cycle to prime them for cuts. It was establishmentarian Mitch McConnell who said they wouldn’t sign on for Scott’s plan but also wouldn’t articulate any plan at all.
Part of DeSantis’ appeal is that right now, people can project two different ideas onto him:
Ron DeSantis is a professionalized version of Trump who will take Trump-like policy positions but tone down the zaniness and criminality to maximally own the left.
Ron DeSantis is a Trumpified version of Paul Ryan, who will toss the chumps enough culture war chum to hang onto GOP gains with working-class voters while in fact reverting to the pre-Trump policy agenda of cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
If you put a gun to my head, I’d say that DeSantis is #2. That he’s a veteran conservative true believer, and that the reason he has so much elite support and donor support is that he’s made quiet commitments on these points. Republican governors in states like Arizona, West Virginia, and Ohio have made their peace with Medicaid expansion, and the fact that DeSantis hasn’t seems to me like a hint that he believes in hard-right economics. But there isn’t a gun to my head, there’s just the pressure to develop somewhat premature DeSantis takes. What I would like, if DeSantis moves ahead with a national campaign, is to see coverage that front-loads these known-unknowns rather than covering him like a circus.
The answers matter
Aside from Covid-19, DeSantis is most identified with beefing with leftist Florida teachers over K-12 curriculum issues. What I have always thought is underrated about this dispute — and I’m glad to see Patrick Brown from a conservative think tank agree — is that he paired those initiatives with generous school funding and pay increases for teachers.
Most progressives think you should understand the classroom culture war as an extension of a larger conservative war on public education, the goal of which is to dismantle, discredit, and defund neighborhood schools. That’s a powerful political frame and there is some truth to it, although prolonged Covid school closures obviously hurt Democrats’ brand as the party of public education. But Covid debates are in the past now. DeSantis’ best shield against the claim that he’s running a secret plot to dismantle public education is that he was right there handing out money to public school teachers. It’s a potent political combo, and it speaks to the very real potential power of the Professionalized Trump concept.
But of course, the reason DeSantis was able to be so free with school money is that the American Rescue Plan pumped state and local governments up with tons of money they didn’t necessarily need.
If Joe Manchin could take a time machine and re-write ARP, he’d probably take that money out and use it to fund what became the climate title of the Inflation Reduction Act instead. And if that happened, Florida wouldn’t have faced a fiscal crisis or anything, but DeSantis would have had to make hard choices about taxes and spending — the tax cuts + more school money + culture war combo was a gift from Biden and the Democrats. A gift that, crucially, DeSantis opposed.
Trump himself happened to be president during four years of very low interest rates. He guessed that most economists were wrong, that the 2016 economy was not at full employment, and that it would be fine to raise domestic spending and raise military spending and cut taxes. And he was right. But that’s not the situation in 2022, and I don’t think it’s very likely to be the situation in 2024. If Republicans want to enact big tax cuts, they will need spending restraint. So to be Professionalized Trump, you would need to not only replicate aspects of Trumpism that disappointed GOP elites (i.e., moderate positioning on Medicare, not crimes) but actually challenge the longstanding Republican obsession with tax cuts.
If DeSantis actually does that, he’ll be a huge political superstar. But will he? I’m incredibly skeptical. But that’s why you need to run the campaign and debate the policies.