The Art of Losing: Ron DeSantis Was Always Doomed To Fail
So how did he get here? The finale of The Art of Losing: A Ron DeSantis Story
Before we begin with the full-fledged rise and inevitable fall of our protagonist, I would like to take a moment to give an ode to a Florida of times long past. This Florida was not a progressive stronghold. To be honest, it still never produced all that much value. But in contrast to the foaming-at-the-mouth wild animal of a state we’ve come to know over the past few years, it stands in stark contrast as a model of surprisingly reasonable governance. In this Florida, Republican governors would win, and they’d deliver inaugural addresses promising to address the environment. They would make calls for the state to come together amidst partisan divides. When managing the state, they would make appointments based on factors other than a person’s sheer hatred of trans people. In fact, they’d sometimes appoint Democrats to key state offices. And these weren’t just Democrats in name only. They were real liberals, some of whom would later be elected to Congress in safe blue seats. At some moments, they’d even work with Democratic power brokers to push for socially liberal policies. They’d even do symbolic acts to acknowledge the legacy of systemic racism in the state.
This Florida was the Florida of 2019. And that governor’s name was Ronald Dion DeSantis.
No, I’m not kidding. Possibly the best-kept secret about Ron DeSantis’ entire career right now is that he was something of a mainstream Republican during his first year in office. This isn’t a fact that fits within practically anyone’s narrative about him. DeSantis backers touting their guy as the next new Falangist star have no reason to focus on it. Neither do some liberals who have made it their stock-and-trade to paint DeSantis as an unstoppable American Goebbels. It’s unfortunate, because at this point of the campaign, what Ron DeSantis is up to right now is far from the most important thing about him. We all know the story of the past few months. How he’s shed two-thirds of his support from his peak in the polls. How he’s already had to restructure his staff. How his financial backers have openly mused about jumping ship. How his primary competitor is now a hyperactive biotech CEO when it was supposed to be a former President. It’s been the same movie practically every week, and we’re gonna keep seeing it again and again until he drops out. It’s fun, and I like seeing him struggle, but there isn’t anything new here.
So, as we close out our history of DeSantis’ career so far, I think we need something of a shift in perspective. The issue in question is no longer why DeSantis’ presidential campaign has failed so far. If the story of his three independent campaigns in 2012, 2016, and early 2018 aren’t enough to answer this, his actions on the campaign trail this year should make it self-explanatory. He is simply not a good politician. What’s worth figuring out now is this: how did DeSantis get to the heights he rose to in the first place? How did he manage to poll at parity with a former President during the first few months of the year? How did he manage to become so popular with Florida voters across such an extended period of time? And how did he manage to hide his obvious problems for so long?
It's a tough story—even something of a paradox. Here, we have a bad politician who also, at least at one point, reached the commanding heights of American politics. It’s not easy to explain, but it’s important. It’s one thing for a prospective rising star to turn out to be a dud on the campaign trail. It can hurt, but it’s happened before. The thing is that that usually becomes clear before such candidates are given massive institutional backing, tens of millions of dollars, and a mandate to save the entire party from destruction. So, if the entire Republican establishment could get fooled so quickly and so thoroughly by someone so defective, what does it say about their relationship with Trump?
And even more importantly, what does it say about the future of the party after him?
We’ll see. First, Ron DeSantis needs to pull off one of the all-time scams in political history. And it starts, believe it or not, with algae.
Our story begins after Ron DeSantis’ inauguration in 2019 with a topic that sounds more like something from a FromSoft game than an actual public policy issue. For years, Florida’s Gulf Coast has been plagued by blooms of toxic algae in the ocean water. The most famous and important of these algae is known as Karenia brevis, which produces a neurotoxin that can kill massive scores of sea life and poison humans that come into contact with it. This, as you might expect, has been a consistent issue for the state’s many tourism-dependent coastal towns—after all, it’s hard to entice many tourists to come visit when your seas aren’t swimmable and your beaches are full of dead fish. And in case this isn’t dramatic enough, Karenia brevis also colors the typically green algae blooms an apocalyptic, hellish red. Floridians know it simply as “the Red Tide.”
You would think that there would be no way to politicize something that’s such an obvious and immediate threat. It’d be like making house fires a partisan issue. But DeSantis’ predecessor, Governor Rick Scott, found a way. Out of sheer commitment to his far-right ideology and spite towards those who care about the environment, Scott went out of his way to neglect even the most basic management of the algae blooms. Immediately after assuming office in 2011, he eliminated state funds for a program meant to test beach waters for pollution, leaving the state blind to the extent of the problem. As Florida’s sugar industry increasingly pumped discharge into the ocean that fueled the blooms further, he refused to stand up against them, causing the problem to only get worse. When pressed on the issue, Scott would refuse to address it head on, instead insinuating that anyone who questioned him on the issue was an ignorant climate activist who didn’t know that the Red Tide had been a problem for decades. For some reason, he thought that this meant it stopped being an issue.
In sum, Scott’s handling of this issue was a perfect and very high-profile example of his worst tendencies as governor. The sum effect of this style of leadership would be to dramatically weaken the GOP’s hold over the state to the point where they were barely holding on. From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, solid statewide wins had been the norm for the Florida GOP, no matter how good or bad the year. But under Scott, the party was struggling to survive. Each cycle, they found themselves barely escaping death by margins at and around one point. And for someone like Scott, this was basically acceptable. The then-governor was a genuine outsider who couldn’t have cared less about his state party. But this approach wouldn’t work for someone like Ron DeSantis. The new governor didn’t have the cash, support, or mandate to be Rick Scott 2.0, and he knew it. If he was ever going to make anything of himself, something was going to have to give.
And once DeSantis finally ascended to office, something did give.
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