The recent uptick in direct rhetoric between the Biden White House and the Republican governor with unbridled political aspirations reached its crescendo earlier this month, when Biden suggested DeSantis’ actions were “not good” for Floridians and the governor responded that he didn’t want to “hear a blip” from Biden on coronavirus.
Biden later shrugged off criticism from DeSantis by saying, “Governor who?” when asked about him, leading the Florida Republican to question, “What else has he forgotten?” Biden then scolded DeSantis publicly, arguing the governor was “trying to turn a public safety measure, that is children wearing masks in school so they can be safe, into a political dispute.” The President is now using his administration’s power to help school districts that the governor has attempted to punish for instituting mask mandates.
Biden administration officials and political advisers close to the President argue the tough talk is aimed at saving lives, not scoring political points. And for his part, the Republican governor, who has seen his prominence on the right rise as his state becomes the nation’s latest hot spot in the prolonged fight against the virus, has welcomed the spat with the White House.
So far, more Floridians favor the Biden White House’s position — that schools should be able to require masks — than the DeSantis position, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday that found 54% of Floridians backed mask mandates in schools, while 44% said it should be up to parents. The poll also found that 69% of Floridians believe DeSantis’ position of withholding salaries from the leaders of schools with mask mandates was a bad idea, compared with 25% who support it.
“The strategy is to combat mis- and disinformation from any source,” Cameron Webb, White House senior policy adviser for Covid-19 equity, said of the administration’s more forceful engagement with governors flouting federal recommendations. “Ultimately, history’s going to look back at what’s happening in different states. We are going to see and say who used the moment for the short term and who used the moment with the big, much greater goal of keeping people safe.”
Republicans close to DeSantis argue the back-and-forth with Biden signals Democrats are worried about the GOP governor.
“The White House highlighting Florida, and specifically Gov. DeSantis, shows their deep concern for the governor’s growing popularity,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. “They are concerned that they are not going to do well in 2022, and they should be concerned.”
The back-and-forth has created a unique situation in politics where both sides welcome the fight, albeit for different reasons.
Biden and his top officials are keen to call out DeSantis’ continued flouting of medical recommendations in the fight against the virus, believing that making him an example could encourage other governors to do more. Biden and medical advisers are also heralding other governors, including some Republicans, like Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson, who Biden publicly acknowledged after the Republican admitted it was a mistake to ban mask mandates in the Southern state.
For DeSantis, his fight with the White House — as is the case with the laws he pushed opposing masking and social distancing — helps him with a narrow but politically powerful segment of the Republican Party, boosting his national prominence ahead of a 2022 reelection campaign and a widely expected 2024 presidential bid.
“Sometimes, you know, it is important to let a leader know when they are on the right track or on the wrong track,” Webb said, “particularly when it’s rooted in science, because it is less a matter of opinion; it’s less subjective.”
Webb argued that DeSantis and Florida, with more than 70% of the population having received one vaccination shot, could be leading with an encouraging story, but because the governor has taken a number of anti-science positions, he is directly countering “what otherwise could be a strong trajectory.”
‘You are giving in to the toddler’
DeSantis has taken a far more laissez faire approach throughout the pandemic, including choosing to close the state later than most governors and reopen it earlier than many others.
While the governor was initially heralded for the fact that Florida appeared to have missed the worst of the pandemic, cases surged in the state in the summer of 2020 and the winter of 2021.
And Florida is currently experiencing the worst surge in the state’s fight, with the seven-day daily average of new cases earlier this month surpassing 21,000, well above the state’s earlier high. And while DeSantis is responding by urging vaccinations, he has also led the national fight against mask wearing for vaccinated people and inside schools.
“Politicians want to force you to cover your face as a way for them to cover their own asses,” DeSantis said this week. “That’s just the truth. They want to be able to say they are taking this on and they’re doing this even though it’s not proven to be effective.”
While comments like that have been heralded by conservative media, numerous school districts have openly flouted the governor by passing mask mandates.
Still, DeSantis has seen his fame on the right skyrocket. By engaging in a fight with the President, the governor is punching up — and his profile has followed.
A White House official, asked about DeSantis and Biden’s recent back-and-forth, quipped, “People always look to gain notoriety or the like by taking on other leaders.”
The feelings among top Florida Democrats, including those looking to unseat DeSantis in 2022, are complicated: Many welcome the White House calling out DeSantis, but they know the fight isn’t without consequences.
“Joe Biden is already the President. Ron DeSantis is wannabe, and wannabes throw stones at the people who have the job they want. What the White House is doing is attempting to do everything they can with restraint to stop people from getting sick and dying,” said Kevin Cate, a longtime Democratic operative in Florida who currently works for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. Fried has launched a bid to unseat DeSantis in 2020.
Cate added, however, that a Democratic White House fighting with DeSantis just gives the Republican governor “what he wants and means he will be less likely to save people’s lives.”
“You are giving in to the toddler,” he said.
Another top Democrat said DeSantis is “the greatest foil” for the White House because “in order to get people vaccinated and get people wearing masks, it is necessary to hold some of these bad actors accountable,” because “there is no way to end the pandemic without fighting the misinformation and lies.”
Even still, this Democratic operative acknowledged that DeSantis “does relish the fight” because “it is so helpful to him politically with this small segment of his base.”
‘It shows the weaknesses of their policies’
The back-and-forth is the latest in a bizarre relationship between the Democratic leader and the surging Republican governor. DeSantis was first elected in 2018 by fully embracing then-President Donald Trump and he became a vocal opponent of Biden on the 2020 campaign trail. The only bit of warmth between the two men came earlier this summer when Biden visited South Florida in the wake of the deadly condo collapse, with Biden putting his hand on DeSantis’ arm and praising his leadership, as the Republican governor said Biden “recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one” and had been “very supportive.”
That warmth is now a distant memory.
Florida Republicans, especially those close to DeSantis, welcome the White House’s focus on the governor, arguing that it is not only boosting him but also shows the opposing party is worried about him.
“It shows the weaknesses of their policies and the great support for what the governor is doing,” said Ferré. And DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said the Republican governor is making his decision “based on scientific data and empirical evidence, not virtue signaling or political considerations.”
The undercurrent to all comments from Florida Republicans is that Biden, who could run for reelection in 2024, is calling out DeSantis, in part, because he could be his opponent in his bid for a second term.
“The governor has a pulse on what is important in Florida, and that really is a resonating message” beyond just the Sunshine State, Ferré argued.
That argument, said John Anzalone, a longtime Biden political adviser and pollster, shows how DeSantis’ scrap with the White House is “planned out” and the governor is “driving it from a political perspective.”
“When you really cut to the chase, Ron DeSantis isn’t even speaking to his constituents in Florida. He is speaking to Republican primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Anzalone. “He is the poster child for political rhetoric and irresponsibility on this issue.”
Democrats use DeSantis against other Republicans
The White House is far from alone in holding up DeSantis’ response to the coronavirus as a political foil to what could happen if a Republican took control of a state this year or in 2022.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s facing a recall election, in part, because of missteps he made during the coronavirus pandemic, used DeSantis as a warning in recent remarks to volunteers, arguing that electing a Republican in California would mean the state’s response would begin to mimic Florida’s.
Virginia Democrats have also begun to compare the commonwealth’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Glenn Youngkin, to DeSantis, noting times that the political newcomer has held DeSantis up. Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker accused Youngkin of “imitating” and “modeling himself after” DeSantis in a recent call by “coddling anti-vaccine radicals.” Youngkin has lauded DeSantis’ handling of multiple aspects of the coronavirus crisis in interviews this year.
And in New Jersey, Democrats have noted how Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli has praised DeSantis’ “leadership” during the pandemic, lifting the Florida Republican up to attack Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s response to the virus. Murphy is up for reelection in November.
“Ron DeSantis has put his donors and his political ambition before Florida children, and Republicans across the country want to follow his lead,” said David Turner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “If Republicans think that’s the best way to recover from Covid, they are going to face a reckoning from voters in 2021 and 2022.”
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