About a year ago, with the coronavirus pandemic in its infancy, my fellow columnist Andrew Lorenzen ’22 penned a column criticizing Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), former Governor and current Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and, indeed, the entire Florida Republican Party as a collection of “morons” leading the state to the brink of ruin.
Describing himself as an “ashamed Florida Man,” Lorenzen portrayed Florida as a hellscape, with criminally stupid leadership causing mass death. At the time, I thought this was an unfair judgment. In hindsight, it is abundantly clear that DeSantis and my home state are owed an apology. As a fellow Floridian, I feel an obligation to set the record straight.
Few things have been more detached from reality than appraisals of DeSantis’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Their only rivals are reviews of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) Emmy Award-winning performance. DeSantis has been portrayed as a grim reaper of sorts, sending Floridians to their deaths through his willfully incompetent management. Lorenzen endorses this narrative, claiming that “he hurt social distancing efforts and, ultimately, led to the deaths of more vulnerable individuals such as Florida’s seniors.” (While DeSantis took steps to protect nursing homes, Cuomo released scores of infected patients to nursing homes, leading to thousands of preventable deaths.)
Much of the DeSantis criticism in the national media has been nothing less than hysterical. A recent story from NBC News advanced a bizarre theory that DeSantis is prioritizing the vaccination of seniors because they are a Republican-leaning group, rather than considering that it is because seniors are responsible for over 80 percent of virus-related deaths. It claimed that DeSantis setting up vaccination clinics in wealthy, retiree enclaves amounted to political favoritism.
This is nonsensical on its own, but it becomes an even more preposterous allegation when one realizes that the Florida Department of Health has been setting up vaccinations clinics in all types of places with high concentrations of seniors, from retiree communities on the Gulf coast to churches to lower-income farming communities. It is because of this effort that Florida is doing a fine job getting its most vulnerable citizens vaccinated quickly.
Now, everyone makes mistakes, but it must be noted that over the course of the last year none of DeSantis’s critics have reckoned with the fact that Florida’s coronavirus numbers are no worse than the rest of the country. While New York has suffered 240 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people, Florida has experienced only 141. New York ranks second in deaths per capita; Florida ranks 28th. Based on the numbers alone, the differential treatment of these two governors is indefensible.
This is despite the fact that New York has imposed significant economic shutdowns over the course of the pandemic, while Florida has been mostly open since early May. There is no empirical case to be made that DeSantis is doing an especially bad job handling the virus. In fact, given that schools are widely open and small businesses remain afloat, there is reason to think that DeSantis has actually done a relatively good job balancing public health with other priorities.
It is worth asking why media observers rated Cuomo and DeSantis so differently over the past year. As previously noted, there was no empirical basis for doing so. Some have suggested it is because DeSantis is a Republican and Cuomo is a Democrat. There is certainly truth to this. Conservatives, and I suspect, even some liberals, know that Democrats are, on the whole, given more favorable media coverage. But partisanship alone does not explain the disparity. After all, there are 27 Republican governors and 23 Democratic governors; none have received hatred like DeSantis or worship like Cuomo.
I think the more compelling explanation is that our media does not care about performance — it cares about theater. Cuomo for months on end gave daily press conferences, suffused with meaningless platitudes, like “the facts defeat fear,” and the media ate it up. They heralded Cuomo as the authoritative voice on the crisis and paid little attention to what he was actually doing or how things were actually going.
DeSantis, on the other hand, committed cardinal sins in the eyes of the media. He praised former President Donald Trump, fought with reporters and often challenged the policy consensus. It didn’t matter that in the end Florida fared no worse. DeSantis did a bad job because he refused to say the “right” things.
Fortunately, the media’s unfair coverage does not seem to have harmed DeSantis’s political prospects. His media sparring and uncompromising attitude have made him ever more popular among GOP voters and set him up nicely for reelection in 2022 and a presidential run in 2024. DeSantis definitely didn’t do everything right over the past year. No leader did. But Floridians are lucky to have him as governor.
Matthew Samilow is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Friday this semester.