Dec 7, 2022 - Health

COVID could be DeSantis' secret weapon in 2024

Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — should he run for the GOP's 2024 presidential nomination — has an opening to attack former President Trump's COVID response from the right.

The big picture: The federal COVID response has become a red-meat issue for the party's base, and DeSantis' 2020 actions are much more aligned with the GOP's tone today.

  • DeSantis has even said he wishes he'd been more vocal in speaking out against the Trump administration's calls for lockdowns early on in the pandemic.
  • "DeSantis is a conservative rock star in large part because of how he handled COVID in Florida," said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign in 2016. "He'll certainly make the implicit contrast with Trump. Whether he makes an explicit contrast at some point depends on how the campaign plays out."

DeSantis' hands-off approach to the pandemic — reopening schools for in-person learning earlier than other states, fighting vaccine mandates and refusing to reimpose restrictions during case spikes — was a key to developing his political brand.

  • "DeSantis made some decisions early on that the federal response didn't make any sense as applied to Florida," said Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council under Trump and a member of Trump's coronavirus task force. "So DeSantis was set up as a foil for the federal government's response."

Reality check: Florida's COVID death rate is on the higher end of the spectrum, compared to other states. But at least in a GOP primary, that's not going to be the point.

Flashback: As much as Democrats have criticized Trump's COVID response, there's an opening to attack it from the right, too.

  • He announced a 15-day national shutdown in mid-March of 2020, which was promptly extended after the virus continued to spread.
  • He appeared on television regularly with NIAID director Anthony Fauci, who remained a member of the Trump's COVID response even as the right grew increasingly frustrated with him.

"He introduced the country to Dr. Fauci, and the far right is not going to forget that. Not that Trump handled the pandemic like Dr. Fauci would have wanted him to, but if you're looking at a way to hit him from the right, that's a big fat target," said Brendan Buck, a former adviser to Paul Ryan.

What they're saying: "After China unleashed this deadly virus onto the rest of the world, President Trump and his administration worked tirelessly to secure medical equipment to save the lives of Americans who were infected," said Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung.

  • "Operation Warp Speed was a once-in-a-lifetime initiative that gave people the option of utilizing therapeutics if they wished to do so. He also fought against any attempt to federalize the pandemic response by protecting every state's right to ultimately decide what is best for their people because of the unique challenges each state faced."
  • A spokesperson for DeSantis declined to comment for this story.

The intrigue: Trump may find himself without much of a constituency at all to defend some of his most important decisions. Democrats have spent years hammering Trump with the opposite argument: He didn't do enough to contain the spread of the virus, resulting in unnecessary deaths.

  • "Trump's handling of COVID is clearly one of the president's biggest vulnerabilities with independent voters and conservative voters for very different reasons," Conant said. "No one is going to forget putting bleach in bodies and downplaying the initial threat, and conservatives won't forgive him for pushing some of the more restrictive policies.”
  • "It's not the science stuff. It's the shutting down the economy, and I think whether fair or not, he's associated with that era, and Ron DeSantis is one of the people who rejected that concept outright and got a lot of credit," Buck said.

The bottom line: "Trump benefits if youre chasing him down every rabbit role and fighting with him everywhere. If you be strategic and fight with him on terms favorable to your candidacy, that is where you can take advantage of him," said Matt Gorman, a former GOP campaign operative.

  • "COVID is one of those examples where, when it comes to DeSantis, where he could fight him on favorable ground."
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