Politicians, like consumer corporations, are always selling their product. If you are running or planning to run for election, every moment is a moment to close a sale, as surely as every ad break is a potential chance to sell a Coca-Cola. But that also means that you’ve got to close sales even in an unfavorable environment. If it suddenly turned out that scores of people who’d ingested sugary carbonated water were dying every day, soda companies are going to have to figure out how to weather that storm.
Same holds true if you’re the governor of a state where hundreds of people are dying from a preventable disease each day, as is the case with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
The coronavirus pandemic in Florida is currently worse than it has been at any prior point. More than 21,000 people are contracting the virus each day on average and nearly 230 are dying, well over the state’s previous high. Florida’s population-adjusted rate of new infections is more than twice the country’s overall, and its adjusted rate of deaths is more than three times as high. About 15 percent of all new cases in the United States and one-fifth of national deaths are occurring in the Sunshine State.
DeSantis made a bad bet earlier this year, that the plunge in new cases that followed the broad rollout of coronavirus vaccines and preceded the emergence of the delta variant of the virus meant he could run hard against containment measures such as mask-wearing recommendations. Then delta arrived in a state with a middling vaccine uptake, and cases exploded. Instead of backtracking on his political choice, DeSantis pushed vaccinations and, later, treatments for those already infected. Meanwhile, people keep dying.
Looking past his reelection in 2022 and toward the 2024 Republican primary, DeSantis now finds himself having to sell some questionable soda.
He offered a new pitch in an appearance Wednesday night on Fox News. Appearing on “Fox News Primetime,” over the breathtakingly generous chyron “Media hacks are determined to smear Gov. DeSantis & everything he’s achieved,” DeSantis was asked how he would handle future attacks from President Biden who, host Jesse Watters suggested, was desperate to deflect attention elsewhere.
“We are absolutely going to stand in Biden’s way if he’s trying to bring his destructive policies to Florida,” DeSantis replied. “If he’s trying to have the federal government take away parents’ rights in terms of their schoolchildren. If he’s trying to continue with his inflationary policies, if he’s going to continue to try to dump —.”
DeSantis’s feed froze, but, given that he restarted by talking about immigration, he appears to have been claiming that the administration was “dumping” immigrants in his state. (That’s not how it works.) Then, back to the pandemic.
“He said he was going to end covid,” DeSantis said of Biden. “He hasn’t done that. We are the first state to start the treatment centers for monoclonal antibodies. Having great success with that. That should have been a bigger plan, a bigger part of this whole response throughout the country from the beginning.”
It’s very useful to note that this specific assertion about responding to the pandemic with miraculous treatments was exactly what President Trump tried to do shortly before the 2020 election. Similarly struggling with selling his product, Trump declared that an antibody treatment he’d received for his own infection was a “cure” that would soon be rolled out free across the country. Like DeSantis, he was trying to downplay the spread of the virus by suggesting there was a way to make it unimportant, that the pandemic could be beaten on the back end instead of the front end. This is a very useful bit of spin for a politician opposed to advocating wearing masks or social distancing: a pound of cure is politically worth a ton of prevention.
But Trump also never made antibody treatments a “bigger part of this whole response,” in part because he soon became focused on denying the reality of his reelection loss instead of the pandemic. That itself is of course another example of a politician trying to reframe a loss as a victory.
We slipped past DeSantis’s Biden promised to end covid line because the sheer amount of chutzpah it incorporates demands its own consideration. It’s a bit like a mayoral candidate criticizing his opponent for not ending home burglaries while also running a lockpick store. If more people got vaccinated and took precautionary steps to limit the virus’s spread, the pandemic would essentially be over. But DeSantis and other governors have decided not to embrace that latter step.
What’s remarkable about DeSantis’s effort to compare himself with Biden (as he did again later in the interview by disparaging the president for “forcing kindergartners to have to wear masks for eight hours a day”) is that, even in his own state, DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic isn’t viewed terribly well.
Polling from Quinnipiac University released this week shows that DeSantis has a better approval rating in Florida than Biden, with 47 percent of the state viewing DeSantis positively and 40 percent saying the same of Biden. But on each leader’s handling of the pandemic, Biden matches DeSantis just under the 50-percent mark. While independents in Florida are 11 points more likely to approve of DeSantis than Biden overall, they give Biden the edge on his handling of the pandemic. Republicans view DeSantis’s efforts on the pandemic about as well as Democrats view Biden’s, but they are also more positive on Biden’s handling than Democrats are of DeSantis’s.
An important bit of context here is that Biden’s approval ratings on the pandemic have slipped lately as the pandemic has gotten worse — itself a function of how the virus has spread in states such as Florida. It’s like the mayoral incumbent seeing his approval rating on crime slip as more deadbolts get picked.
DeSantis is doing the best he can to hold his position as the Republican Party’s leading voice and top non-Trump contender for the 2024 nomination. That means framing his handling of the pandemic as good-if-not-optimal and running down Biden as ineffective and unsuccessful. It means appearing in the safe space of Fox News prime time to opine about how it’s better to try to rescue some of the people hanging by their fingertips from the edge of a cliff than to put up a stanchion asking people not to approach the cliff’s edge. It means telling a national audience of Republicans that he’s doing well on the pandemic even if Floridians are less likely to believe it.
This soda isn’t going to sell itself.