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Why Ron DeSantis can't stop talking about COVID

The Florida governor and likely 2024 presidential candidate takes a post-pandemic victory lap.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a microphone to his mouth in front of a blue curtain and an American Flag.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 10 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic is a thing of the past. But there’s one prominent politician who seems very reluctant to let go.

His name? Ron DeSantis — the GOP governor of Florida and likely 2024 candidate for president.

In just the last week or so, DeSantis has published a pre-campaign memoir, "The Courage to be Free," that devotes dozens of pages to the pandemic. He has insisted on Fox News that Dr. Anthony Fauci, who retired in December, must be “held accountable” because “he was wrong” about the virus. He has even penned (and promptly shared on Twitter) a trolling letter to President Biden demanding that Biden waive his October 2021 ban on foreigners flying into the country without proof of vaccination so unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic can compete in the upcoming Miami Open — or else allow for alternate means of transportation.

“It is ... not clear to me why, even by the terms of your own proclamation, Mr. Djokovic could not legally enter this country via boat,” DeSantis wrote. “Please confirm no later than Friday, March 10, 2023, that this method of travel into Florida would be permissible.” DeSantis later offered “to run a boat from the Bahamas” for Djokovic.

This flurry of coronavirus-centric activity culminated in DeSantis traveling to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. on March 5 to deliver a beta version of his 2024 stump speech. (He is expected to officially announce his candidacy later this spring.)

And more than anything else, his remarks were about — you guessed it — COVID-19.

Someone holding a copy of book
A guest holds a copy of "The Courage to be Free" by DeSantis during an event where the governor spoke at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 10. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“I think the pandemic caused people to reevaluate who’s in charge of their state government more than any other event in my lifetime,” DeSantis declared near the top. “So when the world went mad and common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, [Florida] was a refuge of sanity.”

DeSantis’s hope, it seems, is that the pandemic also causes people to reevaluate who’s in charge of their federal government — even as the virus itself recedes further and further into the rearview mirror.

At first blush, that strategy might seem counterintuitive. According to Gallup, just a quarter of Americans (25%) are still worried about catching COVID, and nearly half (49%) go so far as to say the pandemic is “over” in the U.S. — numbers that have been falling and rising, respectively, for more than a year.

Politically, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted right before the 2022 midterm elections showed that fewer Americans named the coronavirus as their most important voting issue (2%) than any of the other nine choices provided. Barring some drastic new development, it’s hard to imagine COVID packing a stronger political punch in 2024 than in the past.

But that won’t deter DeSantis. Why? Because for him, the pandemic is no longer a matter of public health. Instead, it has become a vehicle for harnessing populist passion — not only against President Biden, but also against DeSantis’s strongest Republican rival: former President Donald Trump.

View from above of DeSantis on a podium before a few hundred seated people in a large building with walls of glass and an airplane bearing the presidential seal looming above them.
DeSantis speaks about his new book, "The Courage to Be Free," in the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, March 5, Simi Valley, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“The DeSantis theory of how the world works is that there’s an incompetent elite who was revealed by COVID to be incompetent. We never need to listen to them,” Semafor campaign reporter Dave Weigel recently explained. “And hey, if they’re wrong about COVID, what else are they wrong about? I bet everything.”

In that sense, DeSantis’s pandemic pitch is really just his overall message in miniature. “Look at our bill that makes it illegal for a fourth-grade teacher to have a rainbow flag in the room. Experts hated that. Well, they were wrong about COVID,” Weigel continued, paraphrasing DeSantis. “Sometimes people think, ‘Can he just talk about COVID forever?’ But it’s more than COVID. It’s ‘every time I’m tested, I disagree with the establishment — and I’m right.’”

Whether DeSantis was actually “right” about COVID is a matter of intense debate. The governor boasts about reopening businesses and schools before other, “bluer” states such as California — despite criticism from officials in D.C. and elsewhere — and insists that his against-the-grain decisions gave Florida an economic and educational edge.

During his Reagan Library speech, the governor noted that while “California tourism declined by 22%” and tourism for “New York City declined 43%” from 2019 to 2021, Florida actually “set a record for domestic tourism” during the same period, accounting for “almost 45% of our nation’s total tourism from foreign countries.”

Diners and a server at a restaurant.
People dining outdoors as Boca Raton, Fla., restaurants reopen in accordance with Palm Beach County's Phase 1 reopening of businesses, May 11, 2020. (Mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX via AP)

“People knew if you’re going to spend your hard-earned money and you want to go on vacation, you actually want to be on vacation. You don’t want to get hit up for medical papers or told you have to wear a mask. They knew they could come to Florida and they would be free,” DeSantis said. “People were better off as a result of the decisions we made.”

The governor also pointed to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress — which showed “Florida fourth-graders ranked number three in reading and number four in the nation in math” — as evidence that lengthier periods of remote learning in places like California and Illinois were “a disgrace.”

“The consequences of that will live for a long time,” DeSantis snapped.

But critics say the data can be sliced and diced other ways too — and that when DeSantis touts the economic and educational benefits of his hands-off approach, he fails to accurately account for its human costs.

After reopening, DeSantis went on to ban mask requirements and falsely claim that people who receive COVID boosters are “more likely to get infected.” His senior-heavy state now has one of the lowest booster rates in the country and “by far” the highest vaccine-era COVID death rate of the six most populated states, according to a September analysis by the Tampa Bay Times. (That group includes California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania.)

DeSantis, seated in front of a dozen supporters, holds up a signed bill.
DeSantis holds up a signed bill that shields employees and their families from coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

The same analysis also showed that Florida’s COVID death rate is roughly three times higher than the average across the other 10 hottest and 10 oldest states, countering theories that differences in weather and age — rather than differences in public-health policy — were primarily responsible for Florida’s elevated mortality numbers.

It’s doubtful that 2024 will devolve into an extended dissection of state-by-state COVID statistics. But DeSantis is betting that lingering public resentment toward peak-pandemic interventions such as school closures and vaccine mandates is stronger than any counterfactual sense of how much worse the fallout could have been without such measures in place. His plan is to direct this resentment toward both Trump and Biden while arguing that any politician not named Ron DeSantis is too dim to challenge the “biomedical security state,” as he likes to put it — or “elites” in general.

“For Republicans, DeSantis’ approach to the pandemic of getting out of shutdowns as soon as possible and resisting mandates and restrictions has been vindicated and has appeal to nearly all factions of the party,” conservative columnist and National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote last month. “DeSantis would have much to brag about in his record in Florida absent Covid, but it is his response to the pandemic that sets him apart and makes him, for the moment, a near-legend for many Republicans.”

The more DeSantis attacks, the more Trump (and eventually Biden) will have to fight back — and the more central COVID may become as a campaign issue.

Donald Trump stands at a microphone and points toward the camera.
Former President Donald Trump delivers remarks on education at a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

DeSantis and Trump have already tussled over the pandemic several times. So far, DeSantis has avoided hitting the former president directly, choosing instead to single out Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as the embodiment of elite expertise run amok.

“We were right, they were wrong," DeSantis crowed Friday during his debut visit to Iowa. “We refused to let our state descend into some sort of Faucian dystopia.” The implication was clear: Neither Biden nor Trump — both of whom employed Fauci as a top COVID adviser — had done the same.

In response, Trump has accused DeSantis of being a flip-flopper. “Florida was actually closed, for a great, long period of time,” the former president told reporters during his first campaign swing through New Hampshire and South Carolina. “Remember, he closed the beaches and everything else? They’re trying to rewrite history.” Trump added that DeSantis had “changed his tune a lot” on the COVID-19 vaccines as well.

Trump has a (limited) point here. By April 2020, there were seven states that had refused to issue stay-at-home orders to their residents; Florida was not one of them. On March 17 of that year, DeSantis directed Floridians to “support beach closures at the discretion of local authorities,” then signed an executive order three days later requiring all beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties to shut down.

On March 13, DeSantis issued a recommendation that Florida schools close their facilities for an extended spring break before lengthening the closure through the end of the school year. And initially he told Floridians to “get vaccinated” because “the vaccines protect you.”

DeSantis stands at a podium with microphones and a plaque reading: Seniors first, text FLCovid19 to 888777.
DeSantis speaks to the media at a coronavirus vaccination site at Lakewood Ranch on Feb. 17, 2021, in Bradenton, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

The trouble for Trump, however, is that if DeSantis has “changed his tune” since 2020, so have most rank-and-file Republicans. The party’s grassroots voters, generally speaking, appear much more sympathetic to DeSantis’s recent call for a grand-jury investigation into vaccine “wrongdoing” than Trump’s desire to take credit for lifesaving shots that were developed quickly on his watch.

“Yes, there’s a portion of our base that is anti-vax and some people could walk away from Trump over it,” one Trump advisor told NBC News in December — a remark that recalled the August 2021 rally in Alabama where the former president was booed after encouraging his supporters to get vaccinated. “That’s why Ron is doing it. It’s so transparent.”

DeSantis, for his part, seems to have Trump right where he wants him. “If you take a crisis situation like COVID, the good thing about it is when you’re an elected executive, you have to make all kinds of decisions,” he said in December. “You gotta steer that ship. And the good thing is that the people are able to render a judgment on that, whether they reelect you or not.”

Sure enough, DeSantis was reelected by nearly 20 percentage points in November, winning independents by 8 and Latinos by 18. Trump was not reelected at all.

That, of course, was DeSantis’s not-so-subtle point. And should he get his way in 2024, COVID will play a major part in the people’s “judgment” of both Trump and Biden, even if it no longer plays a major part in their lives.