Nate Monroe: Ron DeSantis, once a rising star, is becoming a white dwarf

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union

COMMENTARY | Stars that aren’t big enough to become black holes become white dwarves. There is no final moment of glory for a white dwarf, no grand display of cosmic power. Its celestial glow simply fades until there is nothing left but darkness, coldness, and inert rock floating invisibly through the pitch-black heavens. The lights just go out.

Perhaps it was arrogance that drove Florida’s own degrading star, Ron DeSantis, to believe tying his political fortunes to COVID-19 was a good idea. An educated man, DeSantis knew Florida’s pandemic arc  —  roughly middle of the pack in deaths nationally  —  was due mostly to decisions made by local officials of both parties that mimicked the measures taken by more liberal states: Mask mandates, closures, curfews. These were the very things DeSantis had begun railing against with increasing self-assurance in after-hours appearances on Fox News. But leaders sometimes get lucky, and luck often begets opportunity, so he was happy to take credit for the outcomes anyway.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pictured on Feb. 26, 2021.

Recently:COVID-19 hospitalizations continue surge in Jacksonville, across Florida

And just maybe, as Florida exited the pre-vaccine phase of the pandemic, he started believing some of the headlines  —  Where does Ron DeSantis go to get his apology? How Ron DeSantis won the pandemic  —  and began to sense he had control. He could almost feel the burning heat of his rising star, could see the bigger things ahead. 

Maybe Ronald Dion DeSantis, alone, had conquered the virus.

But now that he has most definitely lost control  —  as Florida has spiraled into an exponential explosion of sickness  —  it’s easy to imagine at least some small part of him has begun to fear a very different kind of fate, and to feel instead the lurking chill of a white dwarf.

The Delta variant has shattered the aura of competence DeSantis had hoped would last to the 2024 Republican presidential primary, and it has laid bare his incredibly dark Darwinian worldview about pandemic management: Mass suffering and death are simply inevitable, and even necessary.

*****

Many elected leaders in the United States aspire to see no new infections, and they are weighing an arsenal of policy tools at their disposal, like vaccine mandates, to achieve it.

Not DeSantis.

“And look, at the end of the day, would I rather have 5,000 cases among 20-year-olds or 500 cases among seniors? I would rather have the younger because of the effect that it has,” DeSantis said this past Tuesday.

The latest:16-year-old dies of COVID-19 at Jacksonville hospital; 3 more children in intensive care

DeSantis’ choice  —  500 seniors versus 5,000 young people  —  is an artificial one, and his conclusion is crude and misguided: On Thursday, a hospital in Jacksonville had reported the death of an unvaccinated 16-year-old with no underlying health conditions, while Wolfson’s Children's Hospital had 12 patients, with three in the intensive-care unit, all of which tracks with the observations of pediatricians across the state who say Delta is posing a greater threat to young people.

DeSantis has grudgingly promoted the vaccine while nurturing the fears of his conspiracy-minded followers who refuse to get it, undermining his one meek public-health effort. He has framed the choice of getting a shot in purely personal terms  —  “I’m sick of the judgmental stuff on some of this stuff,” he said this week  —  providing cover to stubborn adults whose personal choices put everyone else at risk and provide more runway for the virus to mutate. 

Mask requirements, vaccine mandates, social distancing, limiting large gatherings  —  these may not be DeSantis’ preferred policies, but they are options he can use, and allow local officials to use, to blunt the virus’ reach. His refusal simply means he has decided some spread  —  and hence some suffering and death  —  is the price worth paying to avoid the tyranny of a cloth mask: 500 seniors or 5,000 kids

The choice before us is a synthetic one, created by the governor, but its outcome is no less tragic for it.

Related:Nate Monroe: Duval School Board snubs DeSantis on masks, another setback for Florida governor

And perhaps if Florida had not become the national epitome of COVID mismanagement these past several weeks, he could have gotten away with that sleight of hand. But crisis has a way of clarifying things.

*****

It’s easy to picture an alternative world. The Republican governor of a diverse, closely divided state found a third way: He would not issue statewide mandates, but he would allow cities, counties and school boards full latitude to weigh those decisions for themselves. Jacksonville might need a mask mandate, while Kissimmee might not.

This governor would find vindication in the state’s middle-of-the-pack infection numbers. He’d praise the political courage displayed by local leaders and the real courage of healthcare workers, and he would hold out his model as an alternative to the top-down pandemic management he sees in blue states. 

He would still be criticized by newspapers and experts on the coasts, perhaps with some justification, but he could convincingly argue his approach was a careful balance of what was necessary with what was politically feasible. 

This was, of course, never a path DeSantis considered. 

He landed on a rough copy of this model mostly by accident: He simply lacked the courage necessary to make tough decisions, leaving local officials on the hook with no political cover to shut down beaches, implement curfews, issue mask mandates. Democrats and Republicans alike did this anyway. The people, God help us, they mostly complied, even while DeSantis got to preen for a national audience about his distaste for the very lockdown measures his constituents were, in most cases, enduring and being good sports about. 

When it appeared the state had avoided the disaster some experts had predicted, DeSantis gobbled up the credit. Seeing his star rising, but correctly intuiting the need to whitewash the very un-Trumpian lockdown measures that were to credit for Florida’s pandemic experience, he sought to rewrite history. He didn’t praise local officials and health-care workers; he simply pretended they didn’t exist. When the virus surged in the summer of 2020, following an initial rollback of lockdown measures, DeSantis acted as if it never happened.

And he never again mentioned the few actions he did take that looked an awful lot like some of the shutdowns he now regularly decries  —  like a statewide shuttering of bars and breweries that lasted through September

And the praise kept coming. 

DeSantis had ousted many rounds of confidants and staffers in his public career, dating back to his days in Congress, and as 2020 gave way to 2021, he again tightened his ever-small circle, practically and intellectually, hiring conspiracy theorists who believe COVID is overblown.

At some point during this period of intellectual closure, DeSantis became infatuated with the Swedish no-lock-down model of pandemic response. This was, again, and quite fortunately, very much not how his state had handled the virus, but an outsider could be forgiven for not knowing that. His administration peddled questionable data that purported to vindicate Sweden’s approach, while carefully avoiding the rather inconvenient reality that the Scandinavian nation has an incredibly strong social safety net, including universal health care  —  a decisive contrast to a pauper state like Florida, which even by American standards treats its large numbers of uninsured and underpaid residents with miserly cruelty

Previously:Duval School Board approves mask requirement with opt-out clause

DeSantis, by now fully invested in a 2024 presidential run, turned what had previously been his neglect of his state’s pandemic management into proactive sabotage. He nullified the powers of local officials to enforce mitigation measures. He fought with the Centers for Disease Control. He took the extraordinarily un-conservative step of undermining the ability of the private industry to only do business with vaccinated patrons: When the pandemic-battered cruise lines pushed for vaccine passports, DeSantis quickly slapped them down.

So the tools local officials had previously used to great effect had vanished. The vaccine was merely a personal choice — not a public-health prerogative — and so its rollout was sloppy and slow. When demand waned, state health officials did nothing: Get it if you want. DeSantis and his Tallahassee allies in the Legislature vilified federal health officials, seeding mistrust in the populace and almost certainly playing a role in the state's lagging vaccination numbers. 

Those were Florida's underlying conditions when Delta arrived.

In this, DeSantis turned Florida not into his adored Sweden, but closer to a place like India: A nation with an incredibly weak public health system, and run by a right-wing populist with authoritarian impulses, that had escaped what seemed like an easily predictable disaster on its first go-around with COVID-19. Following its good fortune, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi jettisoned his country’s previously strict lockdown measures, and life resumed much as it had before the pandemic — until Delta.

*****

DeSantis first tried to cope with the damage done by the virus’ latest mutation the way he had during the summer 2020 surge: Denial.

When the data became irrefutable, when Florida began accounting for one in every five new infections in the United States, he retorted the number of infections didn’t matter. When the voices of hundreds of exhausted, overwhelmed hospital workers across Florida became impossible to ignore, he scolded that he had always known the virus was seasonal. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, near the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Miami.

Unconcerned or uncaring, he found time to travel to political events in Utah and then to Milwaukee, where he raised money for his political future.

When hospitals began running out of room and the state as a whole seemed headed for a breaking point this past week, DeSantis finally, sheepishly and uncharacteristically ceded ground: “We thought we would see an increase. I don’t know that we thought we would necessarily see this many positive tests and some of the hospital admissions …,” he said Thursday, during a rare visit to a hospital.

He now faces not only a dangerous virus but local governments in revolt.

Several school districts defied his recent edict that schools were to have no mask mandates, or suffer potential loss in state funding. Elected school officials called his bluff, and he largely folded: His rhetoric amounted only to the Department of Health declaring, with dubious legal authority, that parents will be allowed to opt-out of mask mandates, not that mandates are outlawed or that disloyal local officials will be punished —  the threat behind his tough-guy rhetoric.

His attack dog at the Florida Department of Education, Richard Corcoran, managed an even more pathetic response  —  offering scholarships for parents who want to send their kids to private schools that don’t have mask mandates.

More:Florida education leaders tie mask wearing to 'harassment,' would allow school transfers

DeSantis’ retreat was not so much an acknowledgment of legal reality as it was a political one: Defunding school districts for the sin of making sound decisions about protecting children isn’t a good look. His opponents saw through the ruse and knew he’d backed himself into a corner.

It was the mistake of a leader who is running out of luck.

Setbacks in the courts

He's facing  setbacks in the courts, which have scrutinized and appear poised to strike down some of the red-meat legislation he hoped would buoy his national profile. More lawsuits are on the way. He's at war with the cruise industry, which detests his anti-vaccine-passport policies. Disney has walked away from his leadership model, too, imposing an indoor mask mandate at its parks.

He's infuriated Florida's healthcare leaders, who desperately want him to act as if he's in the middle of a public health emergency.

He's become the national face of pandemic mismanagement, increasingly alone in the vast expanse.

He is, in other words, not the star he used to be.

Nate Monroe’s City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.