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Florida, Man

Ron DeSantis Wants a Referendum on “Freedom.” Fine—It’s a Fight He’ll Lose.

The Florida governor is a true believer. It makes him dangerous. But it also makes him vulnerable.

Paul Hennessy/Getty Images

If Ron DeSantis had spent the past few years positioning himself as a quote-unquote normal conservative, I’d be seriously worried about the presidential candidacy he’s set to announce this week. By “normal” conservative, I mean someone running basically on the free-market economy, tax cuts, and deregulation, with the usual sprinkling of sops thrown to the culture warriors. This would be a formidable DeSantis.

That DeSantis would have some stuff to brag about. Just a few days ago, he was able to announce that the state’s unemployment rate was steady at just 2.6 percent. Private-sector employment has grown over the past year at a rate considerably higher than in the nation as a whole. About 1,000 Americans move to Florida every day; the state ranks number one in that regard. And of course, Florida has no income tax.

He’ll still boast about those things, but it will be secondary to his campaign, which will follow the entirely different course he’s chosen for himself: He’s declared himself the field marshal of a cultural civil war. A decade or so ago, this too would have scared me. But in today’s United States, my bet is that most people don’t want to live in an intolerant society that basically outlaws abortion and bans books and allows nearly anybody to carry a permit-less firearm and gives the state the right to take children away from their parents in the name of “freedom.” I think that’s a loser—provided Joe Biden and the Democrats directly and aggressively challenge this twisted idea of freedom, should DeSantis emerge the GOP nominee, and advance an alternative definition of their own.

Why has DeSantis chosen this course? I offer to you the following five explanations:

1. He lives deep inside an echo chamber where everyone he ever talks to is terminally online and fully in agreement that “wokery” will spell the end of civilization.

2. He thinks that it polls well (it actually doesn’t, for the most part, but pollsters can cook numbers however they want).

3. His wife, Casey, urges him in this direction. She is said to hold an unusual amount of power in the relationship and has spent the past few years cosplaying as a first lady.

4. He’s of the mind that all of this has worked for him so far. (Although his approval numbers aren’t great—he’s just above the waterline in a recent YouGov/Economist poll, but a hefty 26 percent had a very unfavorable view of him, six points higher than the very favorable number.) 

5. He genuinely believes all this.

Don’t discount that last one. All politicians do certain things to please the base. But the zeal with which DeSantis has taken on these fights suggests a man obsessed. Molly Ball, in her insightful profile of DeSantis in last week’s Time, quotes an adviser: “He has a providential belief that he will talk sincerely about. He believes he is exactly where God planned him to be at all times.” That’s not a guy who spends countless hours watching focus groups.

Whatever his motivation, the question we care about most is whether this brand of moral-panic politics can get a hard right-winger into the White House in 2024. Never say never in a country that elected Donald Trump president, but I don’t think America wants that. It’s not simply that large majorities support more liberal abortion rights than DeSantis’s draconian six-week law or oppose permit-less concealed carry (on transgender issues, the polling is more ambiguous, but I seriously doubt your average person thinks the state ought to be able to steal a transgender child away from their parents, which is now the law in Florida). It’s also that DeSantis is in people’s faces incessantly, making them choose sides.

Ball also quotes David Jolly, the former Florida GOP congressman who’s now a happy MSNBC camper. “It’s in the air, it’s everywhere, it’s amazing,” Jolly said. “It’s between neighbors, it’s when you go to restaurants, when you go to schools. You’re on one side or the other, and people know it.”

Just what average voters want: more politics in their lives! I don’t think so. In that sense, DeSantis is like Trump. He too will force arguments—about him—over Thanksgiving dinner. The difference is that Trump has a personality (repulsive to me and you, but evidently winning to his people) and a brand. DeSantis has the charm of an unlanced boil. His recent return visit to the House of Representatives, where he served three terms in the 2010s and presumably might have had some old friends, resulted in a spate of horrible press and a slew of endorsements from GOP members of the Florida congressional delegation—for Trump.

It’s still likely that none of this ends up mattering. Trump is the favorite and will remain so. But if DeSantis does somehow defeat him, that in itself will show strength and win him a ton of positive press. And he has a few attributes that must be taken seriously. He’s smart. He knows policy and does his homework. He went against the tide on the pandemic, and the way these things are measured in the media, he can plausibly say he was proven right. And he’s done a couple counterintuitive things, like signing a $700 million affordable housing law.

But the heart of his general election campaign, if he gets there, is going to be Freedom. Everything he’s doing, he boasts, is about freedom. Biden and the Democrats will need to tackle this head on. DeSantis’s idea of freedom, for a lot of Floridians, looks more like chains: women seeking reproductive freedom, transgender children, school librarians, academics who dare to cross the whiff-of-1984 lines he and his legislature have drawn, and anybody who is sympathetic to any of those groups. DeSantis loves freedom—for people who love DeSantis.

He wants a referendum on freedom? Great. Let’s give him one. I think most voters will choose to give women freedom to control their bodies; children (and adults) freedom to live as they wish to live; immigrants, even undocumented ones, the freedom not to be used as grotesque political props; Mickey, Minnie, and Bob Eiger the freedom to run their business as they see fit; and all of us the freedom to go to the mall without having to worry about ending up in a bloodbath. And DeSantis will end up in retirement—which, as he would tell it, would be right where God wants him.