DeSantis has history of doubling down in the face of criticism

Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, said the U.S. president must occasionally be ready to back off when the situation dictates.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a political roundtable, Friday, May 19, 2023, in Bedford, N.H.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a political roundtable, Friday, May 19, 2023, in Bedford, N.H. [ ROBERT F. BUKATY | AP ]
Published May 19

Thomas Massie had been in Congress less than a year when a colleague approached him with a controversial plan. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, himself a freshman, was urging Republican lawmakers on to the U.S. House floor to rail against a proposed internet sales tax that had the strong support of retail giants and only muted GOP opposition.

DeSantis’ effort drew fierce pushback. Lawmakers were surprised to receive calls from irate lobbyists before the floor debate even ended, demanding they back off.

Yet the Florida Republican did not waver — a demonstration, Massie says, of how DeSantis responds to critics when his plans come under fire.

“I just thought, make sure he’s right before you follow him,” Massie told McClatchy, “because he’s not going to back down, and it could be controversial.”

The legislation ultimately never made it out of the House, a victory for DeSantis that would help form the foundation of an intractable mindset that his allies say will play a big role in his presidential campaign.

After emerging from last year’s midterm elections as GOP voters’ undisputed top alternative to former President Donald Trump, DeSantis has faced a torrent of criticism from fellow Republicans in recent weeks questioning his political judgment on issues like his ongoing feud with the Walt Disney corporation and what some would call the delayed launch of his White House campaign. Even some allies and donors have called for him to recalibrate his approach or relent on some of his past positions lest his campaign fizzle before it officially begins.

But a pivot, according to longtime DeSantis watchers like Massie, isn’t coming anytime soon.

Instead, the Florida Republican plans to double down on his past positions, allies and insiders say, confident that recent history proves he and his political operation are better attuned to the values and desires of the average Republican voter than their critics and doubters.

“Weathering attacks from the beltway chattering class to deliver on campaign promises may be a concept alien to stale establishment Republicans, but Ron DeSantis has a long record of tuning out the critics and doing what he said he said he would do,” Dave Abrams, spokesman for DeSantis’s political team, said in a statement.

Career hallmark

As he prepares to announce his candidacy for president next week, the governor’s defiant posture toward criticism represents one of his boldest — and riskiest — political bets, trusting that his instincts can prevail at the highest level of politics.

That attitude has been a hallmark of his political career, dating back to his decision as a political neophyte in 2012 to run for Congress. Six years later, he took on longtime establishment favorite Adam Putnam as a gubernatorial underdog. Both decisions paid off.

As governor, DeSantis again forged an identity defying critics — both politicians and doctors — when he lifted public health restrictions in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, even as the virus continued to kill tens of thousands of Americans every month.

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He later took far-reaching action on social issues like banning instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for young school children, pushing it over the objections of many LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and Disney.

In his speeches around the county, DeSantis often says he received advice to govern as a moderate in Florida, where top-of-ticket elections have been decided by narrow margins. But his decisions were politically vindicated, the governor’s allies believe, when he cruised to an easy reelection victory in 2022. And they’re so eager to burnish his image as a fighter that the super PAC chosen to back his soon-to-be-announced White House campaign is called “Never Back Down.”

“The strategy has been to make a decision, take a position, and never back down,” said Justin Sayfie, a longtime GOP lobbyist in Florida. “That’s what he does. It’s been a successful formula for him.”

Massie said he wasn’t surprised that DeSantis has continued to pursue his dispute with Disney.

“Nobody should be surprised, especially if you’ve tracked him for 10 years,” he said. “It was the same way in Congress. If he took a position that he thought was right and he caught criticism, he would just double down.”

Presidential gauntlet

What worked in Florida, of course, won’t necessarily be successful battling against Trump and a group of other seasoned GOP candidates, some Republicans warn.

“The presidential campaign gauntlet is unlike any other gauntlet devised by man,” Sayfie said. “And you never know how someone is going to do in it until they’re actually in it.”

As if to prove the point, Disney announced Thursday that it would withdraw a planned billion-dollar investment in the state, citing “changing business conditions” as its feud with DeSantis continues.

DeSantis’ back and forth with Disney over control of an improvement district has been perhaps his most controversial position of late, with Republicans like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chiding him for using the power of government to punish a private company.

The governor’s aides, however, point to polls showing that most GOP voters take his side in the standoff: A Reuters/Ipsos poll released in April found 64% of national GOP voters say DeSantis is “rightfully rolling back special treatment for Disney,” compared to just 36% who say he’s punishing the company for exercising its free-speech rights.

DeSantis himself has defended his battle with Disney as an issue about “who governs in our society,” arguing that voters have vindicated his position. He notes that he even performed well in November in Osceola County, where many Disney employees live.

“No one could mistake my campaign position,” DeSantis said at a news conference earlier this month. “And yet, not only were we successful, we did better in places like Osceola County than a Republican has done in eons and even won the county by 7%. So, we had the debate and so now we’re implementing the will of the people. And for them to act like they have the ability to veto that, basically is putting their thumb in the eye of the voters of this state.”

DeSantis regularly touts his immunity to criticism in public, going so far as to suggest he feels vindicated that he’s taking the right course of action when he does get criticized.

But that approach can also lead to criticism. Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 before turning into a frequent Republican critic, chastised DeSantis in a recent video, saying that the president of the United States must occasionally be ready to back off when the situation dictates.

“Do you really want the most powerful person in the world, a person in charge of the nuclear arsenal, to lack the dismemberment, the wisdom to believe, truly, that it’s OK to never back down?” Schmidt said.

DeSantis has on occasion shown a willingness to deviate from his positions. In March, after issuing a much-criticized statement that called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” he clarified that he thought Vladimir Putin was wrong to invade.

A month later, when Trump was indicted by a Manhattan prosecutor, DeSantis’ initial response made repeated mention of the former president’s “hush money payments” to porn stars. The description was absent from DeSantis’ remarks a week later, when Trump was arraigned.

But allies say, on the whole, DeSantis often thinks he better understands the substance and the policy of issues better than his critics, especially when it comes to conservative voters.

Massie recounted receiving a phone call from DeSantis in the summer of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was killing tens of thousands of Americans every month and critics, including politicians and doctors, were criticizing DeSantis for lifting public health restrictions.

“’I know my position is unpopular right now, and I’m getting hammered in the media, but I’m going to lean into it,’ he said, ‘because in a year or two they’re going to realize we’re right,’” Massie recounted DeSantis saying. “‘And I think we’ll be in a good position in a couple of years from now.’”