Ron DeSantis’ talk of Florida as ‘refuge’ stokes red-versus-blue divide

News Analysis: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ pitch for his yet-to-be-announced presidential campaign leans into red-versus-blue rhetoric that is a softer, more palatable version of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s call for a ‘national divorce’

Andrew Feinberg
Monday 06 March 2023 21:27 GMT
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At the turn of the 21st century, a popular governor of a populous Republican stronghold sought promotion to the presidency on the grounds that he was, in his words, “a uniter, not a divider”.

George W Bush’s hope to be a leader who brought America together took a significant hit after the 2000 presidential election ended in a monthlong stalemate that took a 5-4 Supreme Court decision to resolve by handing him Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency, leaving the country he wanted to unite divided into what the press began calling “red states” and “blue states,” after the colours used by television networks’ election night maps.

But nearly a quarter-century after Mr Bush promised to be a leader who would bring the US together, the governor of the state that made him the 43rd President of the United States hopes perpetuating that red-versus-vlue divide will let him hold the office Mr Bush did.

In a 40-minute address to prominent Republicans at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis laid out a vision of remaking the country as a whole into a far-right paradise in the mould of the Sunshine State under his leadership.

The Florida governor devoted the majority of his remarks to assailing the will of voters in many of the country’s population centres and economic engines, castigating governors and legislators in New York and California for implementing the policies that got them elected in the first place.

Mr DeSantis made a point of taking aim at Gavin Newsom, the popular governor of California who last year survived a recall effort which sought to replace him with right-wing talk show host Larry Elder.

Mr DeSantis castigated Mr Newsom for following the advice of public health experts at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, accusing him of “subcontract[ing] ... leadership to health bureaucrats” and assailed the state governments in New York and California for their tax policies.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis sits with his family before addressing supporters at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Sunday, March 5, 2023. DeSantis has quietly begun to expand his political coalition on his terms just as he releases a book, "The Courage to be Free," which comes out Tuesday. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“When the world went mad, when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for people throughout the United States and indeed, throughout the world. We refused to let our state descend into some type of Faucian dystopia, where people's rights were curtailed, and their livelihoods were destroyed. We made sure people had a right to work and we got people back to work and businesses back open,” he said.

Mr DeSantis portrayed himself as a visionary leader who’d bucked the conventional wisdom and reaped uncommon benefits. But the reality of what happened is a bit more complicated.

In fact, he imposed many of the same stay-at-home orders other governors did at the same time most other states did, in early 2020.

It wasn’t until far-right extremists began protesting outside state capitals in states with Democratic governors — around the time then-president Donald Trump began tweeting about the need to “liberate” those specific states — that Mr DeSantis remade himself into the champion of anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-public health populists.

Since then, with the aid of a compliant GOP-led legislature, Mr DeSantis has sought to make the Sunshine State a leader in implementing a new, muscular form of Republicanism that uses the power of the state to achieve broader cultural goals.

In his remarks, Mr DeSantis made a point of contrasting his state’s education policies with so-called blue states, which he claims have allowed public schools and universities to become centers of indoctrination.

“I think we've gotten it right on all the key issues. And I think these liberal states have gotten it wrong, and why are they getting it wrong? I think it all goes back to ideology. I think it goes back to this woke mind virus that's infected, the left and all these other institutions. I mean, think about the way they have governed the states,” he said.

“They put things like woke ideology over the tried and true principles that President Reagan stand. And then below that they do coddle the criminals and put the rights of the criminals over the safety of the public and the rights of victims ... and they subordinate in terms of education, the best interests of parents and students to partisan interest groups like school unions ... and so its ideology run amok. That's why the quality of life has declined in places like San Francisco and New York City and Philadelphia and Chicago. It's all rooted in that. And that woke ideology rejects the core foundational principles that have made this country great,” he said.

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