Trump’s policy agenda gets Florida focus in election year

Democrats call it political pandering of critical swing state voters. Are they right?
President Donald Trump shows off an memorandum on protecting Florida coastline from offshore drilling after speaking on the environment at Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Jupiter.
President Donald Trump shows off an memorandum on protecting Florida coastline from offshore drilling after speaking on the environment at Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Jupiter. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]
Published Sept. 13, 2020

It’s not normal for a president to announce new policies on the road in front of a sea of supporters chanting “FOUR MORE YEARS” and encouraging him to take more shots at his political foes.

But that was the scene in Jupiter last week as President Donald Trump took the extraordinary step of extending a drilling ban off Florida’s coast to 2032.

Billed as an official presidential visit, the event started with familiar campaign music and ended with Gov. Ron DeSantis tossing Trump’s pens into a pit of outstretched hands like they were guitar picks at a rock concert.

Facing a difficult road to another term, Trump’s election-year agenda has frequently shined a spotlight on Florida. The offshore drilling ban follows another high-profile announcement earlier this summer to allow importation of prescription drugs from Canada, a DeSantis priority.

Last October, Trump made a splashy visit to The Villages, where he signed an executive order he said would strengthen Medicare, a government healthcare program enjoyed by one of Florida’s largest voting blocs — seniors.

Meanwhile, members of Trump’s inner circle often tag along on DeSantis' daily tour of media markets to talk about the coronavirus, and they’re quick to note the attention the president is giving the state.

And then there’s Trump on Twitter, where he announces routine government grants for Florida projects, magnifying his role in securing the funding.

“@USDOT is committing $21.8M for the FIRST transit project of this kind in the Tampa Bay region,” he posted in May. “It will connect St. Petersburg to popular beaches through state-of-the-art transit buses with FREE WiFi. Will be a major help to heavily populated parts of the Great State of Florida!”

His executive actions, his tweets, where he deploys his staff — it’s fixated on the state that may ultimately decide whether Trump spends another term in the White House. The latest polls show a tightening race in Florida, a state Trump won in 2016 and cannot afford to lose in November.

Democrats have criticized Trump’s attention on Florida as nakedly political in an election year. Trump’s new appreciation for Florida’s environment, for example, comes after years of his administration flirting with plans to open the Gulf of Mexico to drilling. Politico reported in June that the Trump administration was waiting until after the election to announce that it would allow oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coast — which Democrats were quick to point out this week.

“Just months ago, Donald Trump was planning to allow oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida,” former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “Now, with 56 days until the election, he conveniently says that he changed his mind. Unbelievable.”

Offshore drilling is incredibly unpopular in Florida, opposed by Democrats and Republicans alike. In 2018, a constitutional amendment to ban offshore drilling won 69 percent of the vote — more than any statewide candidate could ever dream to receive from Florida’s polarized electorate.

Trump’s team said the timing of Trump’s announcement was a coincidence.

“It is a major policy decision that President Trump is fully committed to after years of thoughtful deliberation, not a short-term political move,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

Democrats have also questioned the staying power and the effectiveness of Trump’s election-year executive actions. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said Trump’s offshore-drilling order “can be rescinded at any time."

It wouldn’t be that simple, said Jim McElfish, an attorney with the Environmental Law Institute, and if he tried it would likely trigger a lawsuit. But McElfish noted that while no president has attempted to turn back the clock on their own efforts to protect American territory from drilling, Trump is currently fighting a legal battle to undo President Barack Obama’s order to block Alaskan lands from oil exploration.

In July, Trump announced what he said would be a crackdown on prescription drug prices. He called DeSantis to the White House for the “historic" announcement that strongly implied seniors could soon order cheaper drugs from Canada.

In actuality, Trump’s order instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to initiate the next procedural step to allow drug importation, said Jeff Johnson, the state director for AARP Florida, but “it’s not the case that we suddenly have access to Canadian drugs for consumers or pharmacies.”

“These were executive orders, but they don’t actually change anything on the ground,” Johnson said. “They move the ball forward a little, but it’s not like Florida is open for business now.”

Similarly, Trump last year in The Villages told seniors that he was strengthening Medicare in the face of what he said were Democrats who wanted to “raid Medicare to fund a thing called socialism.” What Trump really ceremoniously signed, however, was an executive order with vague instructions to bolster Medical Savings Accounts, a little-used offering for Medicare recipients to create tax-free health savings accounts.

In many of these cases, the line between government business and campaign activity gets blurred into oblivion, which agitates his critics even more.

“All you care about is re-election, not the Sunshine State,” state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, tweeted after Trump’s event in Jupiter.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Democrats don’t want to give Trump credit. Gruters suggested Trump is favoring the state because it’s where the president now has a permanent residence, not because it’s a swing state with 29 electoral college votes up for grabs.

“There’s definitely an advantage of having the president be a resident of the state and we’re seeing it in these actions," Gruters said. “He’s obviously not doing these things for New York anymore.”

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.