Thursday, February 09, 2023


In a column titled "What Liberals Can Learn from Ron DeSantis," Pamela Paul chastises Democrats for their response to the rise of Florida's governor -- but for the life of me, I can't figure out what she thinks we're doing wrong.

Paul writes:
Is there anything liberals can do about Ron DeSantis other than quietly seethe, loudly condemn him every time he makes headlines and hope that his political flaws — his distaste for glad-handing, his less-than-inspiring public speaking style, his conspicuous unlikability — will take him down before he gets anywhere close to the presidency? It would be tempting to write off DeSantis, the bombastic Republican governor of Florida, as another unelectable right-wing lunatic unfit for national office.

We’ve made that mistake before.

It’s reliably depressing to revisit 2016 and the misbegotten liberal conviction that America couldn’t possibly elevate Donald Trump to the presidency. We’ve already cataloged the mistakes in media coverage and dissected what we missed that somehow made Trump a viable, let alone a desirable, candidate to occupy the Oval Office. But here we go again. As the Democratic political strategist Lis Smith has remarked, the left’s reaction to DeSantis looks just like its reaction to Trump: “He’s picking these fights. He’s saying and doing abhorrent things. And all the same characters — whether in the media, Democratic politics, the punditry class, whatever it is — have the same freakout.”

Let’s pay closer attention this time.

... we shouldn’t underestimate DeSantis.
Is Paul criticizing us for writing DeSantis off as unelectable -- or for freaking out because we fear he is electable? I'm pretty sure we can't be doing both simultaneously. Nevertheless, Paul seems to be making both accusations at once.

The Lis Smith quotes comes from the transcript of an October 2022 podcast. Paul seems to be using the Smith quote to accuse Democrats of underestimating Trump before the 2016 election, but Smith was talking about the mood among Democrats after the 2016 election, which is when she first met Pete Buttigieg, for whom she later worked.

Smith said:
When I first met [Buttigieg], it was over the phone in December 2016. He was thinking about running for DNC chair.... December 2016 is when the Democratic Party, sort of rightly so, was in full freakout mode, because no one could believe that we had lost to Donald Trump. And the media was in full freakout mode too because so few people had predicted this. All the polls were wrong. And Donald Trump seemed to fly in the face of everything that we thought America is and was. Yet he was able to prevail. So, Democrats sort of over-corrected—overreacted I think—at that moment. In the weeks afterwards, certainly in the years afterwards, you had Democrats going out there and saying, “To beat Trump, we have to be like Trump, and we gotta yell, we gotta scream. When they go low, we go lower. We kick them in the teeth.”
In the passage quoted by Paul, Smith wasn't talking about Democrats contemptuously dismissing Trump -- she was talking about Democrats trying to reverse-engineer Trumpism, which is pretty much the opposite. Smith said that Buttigieg
understood that it’s important not to play Trump's game—which is to say something outrageous, watch people's heads explode, dominate the news cycle for days, and then rinse and repeat. I'm sort of seeing the same thing happening with Ron DeSantis. He's picking these fights, he's saying and doing abhorrent things. And all the same characters—whether in the media, Democratic politics, the punditry class, whatever it is—have the same freak out. Then everything revolves around Ron. He's setting the debate....
Smith's point wasn't that above-it-all elitist Democrats are dismissing DeSantis the way they dismissed Trump. It's that Democratic attempts to out-Trump Trump were doomed to failure. Buttigieg, in her opinion, knew that the right way to deal with Trump was to be the opposite of him.
Pete understood that the best counterprogramming to Trump was to be the antidote to him in terms of style presentation, how he talked—but also in terms of policy.
You may not agree with Smith that the person who's solved the problem of how to counter Trump is Pete Buttigieg -- I certainly don't. But it's exactly the opposite of what Paul believes about DeSantis, which is: You gotta admit the guy has some good ideas.
The jury is still out on whether DeSantis’s unorthodox response to Covid-19 was a colossal error or an unexpected success or, more likely, something in between, but the fact that he took an aggressive approach to avoid the pains of lockdown on small businesses and families wasn’t lost on Florida voters. While other politicians prevaricated and dithered, DeSantis spoke with conviction and seemed to be doing something, and to many working families in Florida, that mattered.

... We can decry his stunt in shipping migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, but we should also be attending to the real concerns of people living in areas of heavy immigration.

... A law like the Stop WOKE Act of 2021 ... may come with an incendiary name and some egregious efforts to curtail free speech. But it’s important to recognize that aspects of it appeal to Floridians tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.

As many liberals will quietly acknowledge, the Parental Rights in Education Act, which DeSantis signed last year and which opponents nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, has reasonable and legitimate attractions for a broad range of parents who worry about the focus, efficacy and age appropriateness of what their kids are learning in primary and secondary school.
Lis Smith says: Don't try to counter Republican bellicosity with Democratic bellicosity. It's bad strategy. Pamela Paul says: Hey, Democrats, maybe those people punching you in the face have a point. Maybe you should try punching yourself in the face. I don't think the former editor of The New York Times Book Review even realizes that those messages are different.

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