As the story about Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot vividly illustrates, he who defines a problem solves it. The political corollary of this truism is that he who defines an election wins it.
With this in mind, Gov. Ron DeSantis is working indefatigably to define the 2022 gubernatorial election as a culture war, specifically, as he said in a recent interview, a war against cultural Marxism, a meaningless phrase that never fails to trigger a Pavlovian response of fear and outrage among the MAGA faithful.
But DeSantis has more in mind than re-election. He views that as just a way station on his road to the White House in 2024, which is why he has been furiously padding his right wing résumé since Trump’s defeat in November and his failed coup attempt on Jan. 6.
DeSantis has kicked the bejesus out of transsexual girl athletes, of whom Florida has no competition outcome altering examples, pandered to the anti-mask and anti-vaccination mob, decried cancel culture and attacked the Big Tech bogeymen, put the legal and rhetorical boots to Florida’s non-existent anarchist rioters, signed voter suppression legislation that disproportionately affects people of color, and launched a crusade against the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public schools where it is not and never has been taught.
And last week he even vetoed a $2 million appropriation supported by Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson and passed by the Republican dominated legislature that would have funded long-acting reversible contraception for low-income girls and women that has been proven to reduce unintended pregnancies and subsequent abortions. Why? Because abortion opponents — the pith of the MAGA base — asked him to do it.
Of course, the effect of all of this on Democrats is like waving a red cape at a bull, and the social justice warriors on the Democratic left are snorting and pawing the turf, growing more enraged by the day. But if the Democrats accept DeSantis’ definition of the election, if they let it be an argument about racism, sexuality and socialism, if they charge the red cape, then DeSantis will put them down as sure as God made little green apples.
Democrats need to fashion a narrative that both holds their adherents and appeals to independent voters and those few Republicans who have not totally taken leave of their senses. This does not mean Democrats have to abandon their principles. It means they have to value victory more than virtue signaling. As I once told a statewide candidate, if there are 10 issues about which you have strong opinions but a majority of voters only agree with you on four, talk about the four and keep the other six on the down-low.
In this context, the Democrat candidates for governor actually need to run for governor while DeSantis is running for president. Make the race about improving the lives of Floridians in tangible ways, not about ideology and identity politics. In a 1972 essay on second wave feminism Joan Didion correctly observed that Marxism has never caught on in America because “the have-nots aspire mainly to having,” not to class solidarity or revolution. Speak to those aspirations.
Talk about restoring the American dream of upward mobility in which each generation does better than the last. Offer specific proposals to that end, like universal, full day pre-Kindergarten. This would make equal opportunity in education more of a reality and less of a slogan for children who need a boost at the starting line of life, and it would also make life easier and less expensive for working parents. Fund it with a state corporate tax increase, which a majority of voters support.
Expand Medicaid. No Floridian should suffer, much less die, because of lack of access to adequate health care. The federal government will pick up almost all of the tab.
Trust democracy by making voting easier, not harder. Embrace and respect home rule by letting voters decide how they want to live in their own communities without diktats from Tallahassee.
Defend traditional public education against the depredations of Republican vandals by proposing solutions to its problems rather than just throwing in the towel, which is what private school vouchers without accountability feels like.
Or whatever. These examples are merely illustrative. The specific suite of issues that might a Democratic governor make is for others to create. The bottom line is that Democrats need to ignore the red cape and strive with might and main to force DeSantis to run in an election that they define in a winnable way.
Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.