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WASHINGTON — President Biden, plainspoken son of Scranton, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the endlessly ambitious, staunchly conservative Ivy Leaguer, were probably never going to be the best of friends. A loyal adherent of Donald Trump, DeSantis sided with the outgoing president’s baseless claims that last year’s election was stolen. For the first several months of the new administration, Biden and DeSantis kept their distance.
That changed with the arrival of the Delta variant, which has hit Florida far harder than any other state. The governor and the president spent the first half of August locked in a feud over how to properly respond to the new surge, most pointedly when it comes to masking in schools.
The battle represents two differing approaches to the pandemic. Biden won the presidency by promising to handle the coronavirus with a science-first consistency that Trump never truly tried; DeSantis is the standard-bearer for a widespread conservative conviction that Trump was fundamentally correct about resisting lockdowns, mask mandates and school closures.
In the balance are thousands of lives, in Florida and other states. Many conservative governors have adopted DeSantis’s approach, prohibiting masks in schools, doing little to encourage vaccination and generally seeing the pandemic as having run its course, since vaccines — and masks — are available to anyone who wants them. Biden represents those who believe the pandemic will only ever end with a show of collective responsibility, whether by asking students to don masks for one more year or by cajoling the unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves.
This is, in many ways, the argument Trump and his detractors waged throughout 2020, only reconfigured for 2021, with obvious implications for the 2024 presidential race, which DeSantis is expected to enter. "Tangling with the Biden White House is obviously helpful for Governor DeSantis,” one Republican strategist who wanted to remain anonymous told Yahoo News, though he also wondered if DeSantis was distinguishing himself in the right way, at the right time. “We have over 870 days until 2024."
Here in 2021, Florida is struggling with a surge that has shown no signs of subsiding. Last Tuesday, Florida reported 233 new coronavirus deaths, nearly doubling the state with the second-highest number of fatalities, Missouri. California and New York, two states DeSantis had routinely mocked as overly restrictive and antithetical to freedom, reported a respective 51 and 40 fatalities from COVID-19.
Three days later, the Florida Hospital Association disclosed that fewer than 10 percent of intensive care beds were open across the state, describing the trends afflicting Florida as “staggering.”
Many conservatives remain steadfastly behind DeSantis, who is lionized regularly on Fox News and other conservative outlets for confronting Biden and denouncing mask-wearing and vaccine mandates. Some, though, have grown disenchanted, wondering how threatening school superintendents who want students to wear masks squares with the philosophy of limited government DeSantis purports to follow.
“I know @GovRonDeSantis,” tweeted the gun-control activist Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was murdered in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018. “I have been in his office. I can honestly say I think he is very bright and has the potential to be competent. What I cannot explain is why he is purposefully making political choices to kill his base and others and to harm the great state of Florida.”
DeSantis spent much of the spring celebrating, spiking the metaphorical football as if the pandemic were over and he had emerged as its unassailable victor. Recent days and weeks have offered a bevy of counterarguments, renewing questions about whether DeSantis had done enough to encourage vaccinations and, more broadly, whether he has been honest with Floridians when it comes to the coronavirus.
“He buckled. He choked. He caved," says Amanda Carpenter, an anti-Trump conservative and the author of “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us.” She laments that DeSantis had “the opportunity to rise to greatness,” but has squandered that opportunity in recent weeks by hewing to a Trumpian approach she and others think he is afraid to discard, knowing that Trump voters would not forgive him for doing so.
“He is not a leader,” Carpenter says. “He is dependent on what Donald Trump said and did before.” Trump, for his part, has curiously not come to public defense of a protégé he knows is on the cusp of becoming a rival, seemingly content to let DeSantis twist in the wind.
The governor’s office disputed such characterizations of his pandemic record. “Governor DeSantis did not pick a fight with President Biden,” his press secretary Christina Pushaw wrote in an email to Yahoo News, arguing that it was Psaki who “kicked off the back-and-forth” between Washington and Tallahassee.
“Governor DeSantis has been focused on governing Florida, not picking fights; he has taken probably five minutes total at his press conferences to respond to questions from local reporters who ask for his reactions to the White House criticisms,” Pushaw wrote.
Politics aside, there are ordinary lives at stake. Earlier this month, only neighboring Louisiana and the African nation of Botswana were found to have higher coronavirus infection rates. DeSantis has blamed the media, undocumented migrants and the weather. Floridians do not appear to believe these excuses. The governor’s approval rating has fallen to 44 percent; other polls show him trailing behind Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat, in next year’s gubernatorial election.
Despite the deepening crisis, DeSantis is maintaining his hands-free approach to the pandemic, doing little to encourage vaccination — though he has, to his credit, said that vaccines work — and fighting school districts that want to impose mask mandates. On a campaign website, you can buy a “Keep Florida Free” flag that copies almost exactly the design and iconography of Trump’s 2020 campaign logo.
Other conservative governors have reconsidered their own positions. Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who is also thought to have his eye on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, recently admitted that his endorsement of a ban on mask mandates in schools was a mistake. He tried to have the Legislature amend the measure, but the move was struck down in court.
Despite the flirtation with centrism that marked his first year in office, DeSantis has shown no desire to back down. He has seemingly relished the back-and-forth with Biden, even as hospitals fill up across Florida and parents wonder if it is safe to send their children back to school. “DeSantis is running for president in 2024 and looking for more headlines on conservative news sites and media outlets and perhaps small-dollar donors,” the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile told Yahoo News. “DeSantis would much rather force Biden to shoulder the blame rather than shift gears and try to stop the spread of COVID.”
Pushaw points out that DeSantis has expanded Floridians’ access to Regeneron, an antibody treatment shown to be effective against serious cases of COVID-19. Trump received the treatment last year after contracting the coronavirus and seeing his blood oxygen levels drop.
“Outpatient Regeneron treatments are helping to alleviate the burden on hospitals and also saving lives,” Pushaw wrote to Yahoo News. (The burden on hospitals remains intense, however, with the Florida Hospital Association reporting on Wednesday that only 8.2 percent of intensive care unit beds were available, a slight drop in availability from the previous Friday.)
Biden has made bipartisanship the centerpiece of his presidency, but he has also relished in needling the thin-skinned Floridian with whom he has plainly concluded there can be no genuine working relationship. Asked recently about DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic, Biden answered with a withering “Governor Who?”
“Our war is not on DeSantis, it’s on the virus, which we’re trying to kneecap,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during last Thursday’s press briefing, when asked by Yahoo News about a New York Post headline suggesting that Biden was trying to hurt a potential presidential opponent.
Asked a day later about a shipment of ventilators by the federal Health Department to Florida that DeSantis had falsely suggested wasn’t taking place, Psaki answered drily, “As a policy, we don’t send ventilators to states without their interest in receiving those ventilators.”
It goes without saying that nobody wanted to be talking about ventilators in August 2021, with the nation on the cusp of a full reopening only a few weeks ago. Biden declared “independence” from the coronavirus on July 4, a call that in retrospect seems painfully premature. The very same weekend, the Delta variant triggered an outbreak in the seaside resort of Provincetown, Mass. The cluster would grow to a thousand people by month’s end, and though very few in the cluster were hospitalized and none died, Delta appeared a bigger threat than previously thought.
On July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that even vaccinated people had to wear masks indoors, to blunt the increased transmissibility of the new variant. “The war has changed,” an internal CDC document warned.
DeSantis was having none of it, even though it was Southeastern and Midwestern states driving the new surge. “I think it’s very important that we say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates,” DeSantis said, vowing that Florida would not become a “Faucian dystopia.”
The virus spread relentlessly. By the beginning of August, Texas and Florida alone were accounting for a third of all new cases, but DeSantis seemed to minimize the surge and lash out at those who questioned his lackadaisical approach.
Biden had little choice but to step in. Florida was bending the pandemic’s trajectory in the wrong direction, for reasons that appeared to be purely political, or, as the president put it to the press, “disingenuous.” His administration began looking for ways to pay educators with federal funds if DeSantis withholds their salaries. “We are certainly encouraging any officials and local leaders to follow public health guidelines to save lives,” Psaki said at a press briefing this week.
Just how that compensation will take place is unclear, but that is almost beside the point. Knowing that the White House was behind them emboldened educators to hold fast to their masking mandates without having to fear the notoriously vengeful DeSantis. Last fall, the governor had taken the correct move by telling teachers there would be no Zoom school. This time around, many thought he was pushing too far, too hard, making heroes out of those same teachers.
“I feel very disappointed and actually quite angry that the governor would continue to utilize his dictatorship-style of leadership to override local school boards when they disagree with his viewpoints,” a South Florida educator told Politico last week.
More recently, though, DeSantis has seemingly come to recognize that his position was untenable. Pushaw, his press secretary, maintains that the state “does not, and has never, managed the payroll for local officials. These superintendents and school board members aren’t state employees.” But, she added, “Florida law protects parents’ rights, including the freedom to choose whether their children wear masks to school or not,’ and superintendents who contravene that freedom “should be held accountable for their own decisions.”
DeSantis will have to own his decisions, too, as does every elected leader. For some who saw him as a promising and principled young star, his handling of the Delta surge has proved dismaying, even as the pro-Trump wing of the conservative movement is firmly in his camp.
“All he had to do was look at the science and do what was right for his constituents,” says Carpenter, the conservative author. “He made the wrong bet.”
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