Scott Maxwell: Can DeSantis go too far? Not for Florida. Maybe for America

Tribune Content Agency

With a book tour, looming presidential campaign and near-daily media events, Ron DeSantis normally craves attention the way ticks crave blood. But lately, he’s been getting so much of it, he’s about to pop.

Conservative pundits and media outlets that have previously showered DeSantis with adulation have taken a decidedly different turn recently as DeSantis strayed from the culture wars that made him famous and he tried to weigh in on more serious issues like foreign policy.

It has not gone well.

A former speechwriter for George W. Bush described DeSantis’ approach to governing as “Tough on drag queens. Weak on national security.”

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which had previously been among his most chipper cheerleaders, penned a piece headlined “Ron DeSantis’s First Big Mistake: The Florida Governor toys with Trumpian retreat on Ukraine.”

Some liberals are celebrating what they think will be the beginning of the DeSantis downfall. I think they’re probably wish-casting.

For starters, I’m not convinced DeSantis can go too far here in Florida. Voters here seem to crave his culture wars. Here, residents can watch their insurance bills double. But as long as DeSantis is fuming about Disney World, transgender teenagers and pronoun choices, they seem pleased as punch.

Anyone who tries to downplay DeSantis’ 19-point reelection victory in Florida last year is kidding themselves.

Sure, residents of dark-blue Orange County may recoil at op-eds with headlines like “Because of DeSantis, my transgender daughter and I are leaving the state.” But many of DeSantis’ Florida supporters see the same headline and think: Mission accomplished.

By all counts, DeSantis is wildly popular in the Sunshine State. His presidential problem may be that the rest of America isn’t like Florida.

See, most of America is more concerned about national security than drag queens.

Most families don’t really believe that Disney is run by pedophiles.

Most Americans prefer reading books to banning them.

And most of America is more sympathetic to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy than Vladimir Putin.

It’s that last issue that’s causing DeSantis problems now. He told Fox News that he didn’t consider more help for Ukraine an issue of “vital national interest” and described the Russian invasion, which has killed tens of thousands of people, as a “territorial dispute.”

Along with grimacing from The Wall Street Journal, fellow Florida Republican Marco Rubio responded: “I don’t know what he’s trying to do or what the goal is.” Former Vice President Mike Pence said in response to the same questions from Fox: “There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican party.”

Even Fox reluctantly covered the backlash with headlines like: “Lindsey Graham accuses DeSantis of ‘taking the Chinese position’ on Ukraine in calling war a ‘territorial dispute.’”

And the flak DeSantis is taking from mainstream Republicans is practically tame compared to the lashing he’s taking from his former mentor and idol, Donald Trump, who is now berating “Ron DeSanctimonious” as often as possible.

Put it all together, and DeSantis is realizing he can’t out-Trump Trump while also discovering that he alienates mainstream Republicans when he tries. That leaves DeSantis on an increasingly small electoral island.

In the past, Team DeSantis has simply lashed out at critics, calling them “groomers” or opponents of “freedom.” But their everyone-who-disagrees-with-me-is-evil playbook doesn’t work as well when talking about fellow Republicans.

So now, a White House campaign that Team DeSantis once envisioned as a coronation is struggling to find its balance. Even more so as some of the claims DeSantis has frequently made in Florida aren’t surviving national scrutiny — most notably DeSantis’ contention that population growth in Florida proves America loves him.

For starters, as Trump himself has noted, Florida’s population has boomed for about 50 straight years — ever since air-conditioning came in vogue. In fact, the state boomed even more heartily in years before DeSantis took office.

National observers are also noting that, once they get past DeSantis’ tough-on-crime talk and blue-state bashing, Florida’s homicide rate is actually worse than both New York’s and California’s.

So yeah, the DeSantis talking points may earn rave reviews in his Florida echo chamber. But they aren’t finding the same success across America’s heartlands with people who don’t get their “news” from DeSantis’ spoon-fed websites.

Still, I think the premature reports of the death of DeSantis’ White House dreams are greatly exaggerated. DeSantis has been underestimated at every step of his political career. And some of the same pundits saying DeSantis has no chance used to say the same thing about Donald Trump … right up until they started calling him “President Trump.”

What DeSantis must do is something more than wage culture wars, troll Democrats and thump his chest. Trump has that lane thoroughly occupied.

I expect DeSantis will recalibrate. His team is savvy. But even if he doesn’t, don’t expect any of this faltering in the national spotlight to thwart his popularity in Florida.

Here, the culture-warring and chest-thumping seem to be more than enough.