If you want to know how to get ahead in today's Republican politics, look no further than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Whether it's enacting a controversial policy or managing a natural disaster, DeSantis-in contrast to Donald Trump-is competent, disciplined, and effective. The only problem? That's not what his fanbase is clamoring for. So he gives them plenty of culture war action, too.
Consider his recent handling of Hurricane Ian as a prime example of how DeSantis walked this tightrope brilliantly.
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"What's really striking to me, in part, about DeSantis' response is that he is really leaning into the bureaucratic administrative bit of this, not so much into comforting people and [the] kind of the softer side of post-storm leadership that you often see from lawmakers," CNN's Abby Phillip said earlier this week.
True. A touchy-feely governor wouldn't play so well in today's GOP that doesn't prioritize kindness and gentleness. Still, DeSantis appeared professional, which is a big step up from Trump. "Mr. President, welcome to Florida. We appreciate working together across various levels of government," DeSantis said to Joe Biden at a joint appearance in Florida on Wednesday.
To his credit, Joe Biden said DeSantis had "done a good job" and that his response was "pretty remarkable."
Both men said all the right words, and their unity was refreshing, especially after four years of Trump. Still, DeSantis' body language toward Biden wasn't exactly warm. I would categorize it with William and Harry walking behind Queen Elizabeth's coffin. Respectful, but perfunctory.
In this regard, he did not make the same political mistake that then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made when he continually heaped praise on Barack Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy, just days before the 2012 presidential election. (A lot of Republican voters never forgave Christie for enthusiastically cooperating with a Democratic president who was up for re-election, even if it was over natural disaster relief for his devastated state. This is blood-sport politics, after all.)
Speaking of Sandy, it has been noted that DeSantis voted against funding for Hurricane Sandy, but is now asking for federal funding for Hurricane Ian. Hypocrites exist equally on both sides of the aisle; Republicans' list includes disaster funding, but that shouldn't surprise us. In today's GOP, hypocrisy isn't going to sink anybody (look at how the GOP embraces Herschel Walker, amid allegations he paid for an abortion). Besides, in today's more populist GOP, taking government money is no longer a cardinal sin-as long as that money supports the right people.
It would be a bigger mistake to be caught lavishing too much praise on Biden or looking weak by hugging him. And no, DeSantis would not make that mistake.
On the other hand, DeSantis couldn't exactly stand in front of the cameras and thank Joe Biden for his work one minute and then bash him the next. That would look cowardly. So what was the alternative?
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Hurricane Ron blew in. To maintain the proper balance of competence and culture war demagogue, DeSantis would have to engage a different target: the media. And he hammered that target before he even appeared on stage with Biden.
DeSantis claimed that "Quite frankly, you have national regime media that… wanted to see Tampa, because they thought that would be worse for Florida. That's how these people think."
"They want to use storms and destruction from storms as a way to advance their agenda. And they don't care what destruction's in their wake. They don't care about the lives here. If they can use it to pursue their political agenda, they will do it," DeSantis continued.
These words were irresponsible and potentially dangerous. But I suspect DeSantis said what he did, at least partly, because victimhood and aggrievement rhetoric is de rigueur for an ambitious Republican politician who wants to make it to the top.
To be sure, politicians have always had to pander, but what is telling is how the pandering has changed. Pols used to have to kiss babies. But DeSantis, to paraphrase something the conservative writer David Frum told me, punches them (metaphorically, of course).
Hey, don't hate the player, hate the game. DeSantis is merely responding to perverse incentives deeply embedded in the GOP's political culture.
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I'm not suggesting that DeSantis isn't summoning his own inner jerk. But I did recently talk to an ex-member of Congress who served with DeSantis for a few years and couldn't remember a single time he ever said a word in a committee meeting. DeSantis was, according to memory, a nonentity.
To the degree this is all calculated, DeSantis's strategy reminds me of the actor George Clooney, who was famous for his "one for them, one for me" approach to movie roles. For every big studio production Clooney says "yes" to, he gains leverage to make a smaller more artsy film that he likes.
In Florida, DeSantis seems to be taking a similar tack (and yielding even bigger blockbuster hits than Clooney). He gets to demonstrate to normies like me that he's competent and sane, but simultaneously signals to MAGA that he's a fighter who hates their enemies.
I don't know how much of this is for show, but I suspect a lot. Performative assholery is the only way a non-crazy Republican can make it to the top in today's GOP. Any example of competent governance must be balanced by some contrasting evidence of meanness or craziness.
So it's one for them, and one for me.
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