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COVID delta variant blows up the Ron DeSantis ‘master politician’ myth | Column
Among other mistakes, Florida’s governor has misread the debate over wearing masks in schools, writes columnist Mac Stipanovich.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks during a roundtable discussion with theme park leaders about safety protocols and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic last year.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks during a roundtable discussion with theme park leaders about safety protocols and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic last year.
Published Sep. 2
Updated Sep. 4

The fundamental flaw afflicting Gov. Ron DeSantis is not the hubris that offended the gods and brought the protagonists in Greek tragedies to ruin, although the gods cannot have failed to notice his overabundant and unwarranted self-esteem. No, DeSantis’ flaw is unbridled ambition. He wants to be president so badly that he can taste it. In fact, he wants to be president so badly that all of us can taste it.

It is this ambition that led to the Faustian bargain that won him Donald Trump’s endorsement in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary and cost him his soul. And it is this ambition that has caused him to do a face plant right in the middle of the road to the White House. I refer, of course, to his shambolic performance during the COVID delta variant surge that has inundated Florida.

Related: If Florida were a country, where would it rank in fighting COVID?

Before the lines on the graphs of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths began to climb anew, DeSantis was the pick of the litter among Republican presidential primary voters in any hypothetical field of candidates in 2024 that did not include Trump. He earned this distinction the new-fashioned way: performative politics. Whether it is the farce of sending a handful of game wardens and whatnot to stem the tide of brown-skinned invaders on the southern border or repeatedly being stuffed in a locker by federal judges for pushing laws through the Legislature that a first-year law student would know are unconstitutional, DeSantis is an impresario of political dog and pony shows.

But performative pizzazz can come back to bite you, as he now knows. His ostentatious opposition to COVID mask mandates and to private businesses requiring proof of vaccination from customers, which is catnip to the MAGA base, was an acceptable political risk when vaccinations were ramping up and COVID metrics were trending down, but the calculus changed when the delta variant exploded on the scene.

DeSantis did not adjust to the new state of play, apparently believing he could just bull his way through the crisis with his customary combination of bluster and intimidation. So when the school board in little Alachua County mandated masking for all students, teachers and staff, he huffed and he puffed and he threatened to blow their house down with budget cuts, suspensions from office and other dire consequences, fully expecting them to wilt in the face of his fury.

They did not wilt. And when the Broward County school district joined the fray, the dam broke. Thirteen school districts, including the six largest and four that are reliably Republican, representing the majority of all K-12 students in Florida are in open rebellion against DeSantis and the Tallahassee bureaucrats he used as cat’s paws in forbidding school mask mandates.

And the rebels currently have a powerful ally: the law. A trial judge recently ruled that the state exceeded its authority when it banned school district mask mandates, which further complicates DeSantis’ faltering bid for autocratic power over local elected school boards.

He is also being battered on the vaccination front. A federal judge enjoined enforcement of the ban on private businesses requiring proof of vaccination in a lawsuit brought by the Viking cruise line. The Royal Caribbean, Disney and Carnival cruise lines have since implemented proof of vaccination protocols as well.

Things are not going much better for him on land. Disney World is requiring its employees to be vaccinated or submit to frequent testing, setting the example for private employers, while the City of Tampa is doing the same in the public sector. Even the Jonas Brothers are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from attendees at an upcoming concert in Jacksonville.

The political ground is clearly shifting beneath DeSantis’ feet, and he and his henchmen have no discernible strategy for regaining control of the situation. Instead, they are frantically improvising. He is crisscrossing the state opening COVID treatment sites like they are popcorn stands while trying to pick fights with President Joe Biden about Afghanistan or immigration or whatever. His press secretary is provoking ugly, personal brawls with the press and flooding social media with lies, near lies and nonsense. They are doing anything and everything they can to divert attention away from the fact that the emperor ain’t wearing no pants and to buy time, because time is DeSantis’ friend: The delta surge will subside, and the political temperature will cool.

But the toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube. The GOP’s front runner on the national stage is walking with a limp at home, and the myth of Ron DeSantis, master politician, is no more.

Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.