Republican Party

Ron DeSantis Could Have Run on a Message of Freedom

His political makeover into a Trumpy cultural warrior undermined what could have been a compelling campaign about the value of freedom.


During his one-on-one debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom in December, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis offered what could have been a slogan for his general election campaign—a campaign that, with DeSantis's withdrawal from the race this afternoon, we now know won't happen.

"This country must choose freedom over failure," DeSantis said.

That was just weeks after DeSantis had been hit with a First Amendment lawsuit for ordering Florida's public universities to deactivate pro-Palestine student groups. And it came on the heels of DeSantis' attacks on the free expression rights of drag queens; his attempts to inject the state into the private decisions of parents, kids, and their doctors; and his attempt to make it easier for public officials to sue journalists over unfavorable press coverage.

Freedom, huh?

This was the contradiction at the heart of DeSantis's campaign, which ended with a whimper on Sunday afternoon. He was a candidate who could tout the benefits of giving parents greater access to school choice and then talk proudly about how his state government has seized greater control over school curriculums—sometimes with hardly a breath in between. He'd brag about how so many Americans were moving to Florida because of its freedoms, then declare that the federal government should do more to stop people who are moving to America for the same reason.

Through it all, it's been impossible to escape the feeling that DeSantis' notion of freedom extended only as far as the preferences of his political tribe.

DeSantis could have been something different. Indeed, he once was a quite different politician. As a backbench congressman during the Obama years, DeSantis was part of the so-called "tea party" movement that pushed for smaller government, less spending, and, yes, more freedom. In his first political book, Dreams From Our Founding FathersDeSantis argued for the merits of constitutionally limited government. During his three terms in Congress, DeSantis backed plans to balance the budget and reform entitlement programs, and he spoke of the need to restrain Washington's "put it on the credit card mentality." As governor of Florida, he was relatively restrained in imposing COVID controls—and stood by that approach when large swaths of the media denounced him for it.

But as governor, DeSantis also earned a reputation for tax-funded political stunts and for expanding government with little regard for civil liberties.

Remnants of the earlier DeSantis were still evident during his governorship and his failed bid for the presidency. The two halves of DeSantis' personality sat awkwardly alongside one another, and that's surely part of the reason why he struggled to connect with voters. His message of freedom was fundamentally incongruous with much of what he'd bragged about accomplishing in office.

Perhaps a more skilled politician could have threaded that needle, but DeSantis struggled to convey a forward-looking vision for the country that moved beyond the contradictions of his gubernatorial record. In National Review last week, Dan McLaughlin offered a thorough pre-postmortem that features eight mistakes DeSantis made over the past year. The whole list is worth your time to read, even if some of the items probably didn't matter much to anyone outside of political media. (How many voters in the real world remember DeSantis' glitchy "campaign launch" on Twitter?)

The first thing on McLaughlin's list is certainly right: "DeSantis failed to heed Scott Walker's public advice from his own experience: Talk about what you're going to do, not just about what you've done."

Walker had been the DeSantis of the 2016 presidential campaign: a conservative gubernatorial wunderkind who had risen to national prominence by aggressively taking on Wisconsin's public sector unions. He was expected to be a formidable candidate in the wide-open GOP primary in 2016, but he ended up being the first of the major contenders to call it quits once the Trump train got rolling.

Walker had a great story to tell about what he'd done as governor, but that was pretty much all he brought to the table in 2016. Ditto for DeSantis, who talks a lot about how great Florida is and claims credit (probably too much of it) for that greatness—but has never offered much in the way of a vision for the country as whole.

What was DeSantis' signature policy proposal? I mean a concrete thing, not something vague like "we win, they lose"—the words scrawled across the top of the "Declaration of Economic Independence," the closest thing to a policy platform DeSantis offered. It made a bunch of vague promises about reducing spending, limiting immigration, and kneecapping the "elites" (a funny attack coming from an Ivy League grad), but it mostly discussed, yep, what DeSantis had done in Florida.

In addition to failing to learn the lesson of Walker's loss, you might also say that DeSantis learned the wrong lesson from Trump's 2016 win. Yes, Trump made a mockery of the long-held notion that Republican primary voters cared about policy specifics, but he did have one policy proposal that was crystal clear and iconic: "Build the Wall."

What's DeSantis' answer to that? His abstract attacks on wokeness didn't have the same ring. (Then again, few politicians have Trump's skill at branding, so everyone else is starting at a disadvantage here.)

The older version of DeSantis might have offered an actual vision for the future: one that revived a small-government Republicanism as a necessary contrast to Trumpism. All of the strongest arguments for DeSantis as an alternative to Trump lined up along that axis. He could contrast his approach to COVID, centered around personal responsibility, with the lockdowns that Trump bears responsibility for initiating. He could contrast his responsible budgeting with Trump's runaway borrowing. His apparently squeaky-clean personal history with Trump's pile of legal and personal baggage.

In short, rather than trying to out-flank Trump with the too-online fringe of the GOP, DeSantis could have courted the much larger segment of Republicans who were disgruntled by the government's handling of the pandemic, unsettled by inflation (which was triggered in part by overspending), and unsure about Trump's ability to overcome all that baggage.

That would have required a willingness to target Trump's faults and failures directly—something DeSantis often seemed unwilling to do, lest he alienate Trump's legions of fans. Probably the best example of that failure occurred shortly after Trump was indicted (for the first time) in March 2023. In response, DeSantis defended the former president and denounced the "weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda." If you're inclined to give DeSantis the benefit of the doubt on that one—that first indictment did seem politically motivated—bear in mind that he kept saying the same thing when more serious charges came down." When Trump was indicted for his role in allegedly trying to overturn Georgia's 2020 election results, DeSantis called it a "criminalization of politics."

Later, DeSantis would bemoan how the indictments seemed to boost Trump's standing with Republican voters—as if his own words hadn't signaled to Republicans that they should continue to stand by their man.

Taking a more aggressive stance toward Trump might have opened a door for DeSantis. After all, Trump didn't win the Republican nomination in 2016 by bowing to the party's semi-incumbent elites, and Republican primary voters have for years been more willing to reward recklessness than timidity. And if you're starting from the premise that the GOP belongs to Trump, why bother running in the first place?

Would any of that have mattered? Maybe not. Probably not. Trump, with his quasi-incumbent status and his cult of personality, was always the favorite in this primary. DeSantis' best chance to win may well have always rested on Trump suffering a debilitating health or legal setback that never arrived. That's more or less the conclusion that McLaughlin reaches too: that DeSantis ultimately "set himself an impossible task." (Not spending a reported $1.6 million on private jets might have helped too.)

But winning isn't everything in politics. Just ask Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney: They all lost at least one Republican presidential primary before coming back to win a later nomination for president. DeSantis might very well get a second chance to reach for the brass ring. He's just 45 years old, and he's got a few years left as Florida's governor—hardly a bad place to be if you want to stay in the national political limelight.

He should spend those years thinking about what sort of candidate his party and country will need in 2028. By then, Trump will surely, finally, be out of the picture, but there will inevitably be those who try to duplicate his style—something we've already seen previewed in this cycle, thanks to Vivek Ramaswamy.

DeSantis has already failed at being that guy. Next time around, he should focus more on that bumper sticker slogan that he'd previewed in the debate against Newsom. "Freedom" didn't force DeSantis to suck up to Trump (or the nastier, racist elements of the right wing) and didn't demand that he engage in a lot of blustery attacks on constitutional rights in Florida. Quite the opposite: That principle should have reminded him that no leader is above the law, and it should have stayed his hand when he felt an urge to use the state's power to control individual's choices.

Republicans might have chosen freedom over failure, if only there had been a candidate in the race who personified that choice.