In the season seven opener of the hit television series The Walking Dead, an uber-villian named Negan forces the show’s captive heroes to kneel on the ground while he proceeds to walk back and forth, monologuing about the virtues of his leadership, all the while threatening to make examples of the heroes with a barbed-wire laced baseball bat. And he eventually uses the bat to bash in the skulls of two of the most beloved characters on the show.
The episode was gut-wrenching for fans to watch, and extremely controversial – not only for the gratuitous violence – but for the seemingly random choice of the characters that were killed.
A similarly brash display of political power happened on Thursday, in which Governor Ron DeSantis, playing the role of Negan, forced his Republican lawmaker allies to stand behind him while he monologued about the logic behind the budget vetoes he was about to unveil. Rather than swinging a baseball bat, DeSantis instead uncapped his veto pen and unleashed a figurative flood of red lines through the Florida budget, killing off project after project while Republican lawmakers, many of whom had worked hard to deliver the budget DeSantis wanted, were obligated to sit still and watch. When all the dust finally settled and the red ink dried, more than $3 billion in funding was dead, most with little or no warning from DeSantis, and even less consistent logic to justify the carnage.
It didn’t have to be that way.
DeSantis has a legislative affairs team that could have easily signalled throughout the budget process that he didn’t support certain things, which would have made the scene on Thursday much more predictable and palatable for everyone – including the potential beneficiaries of some of those budget dollars who were undoubtedly under the assumption that they’d get to put the funds to use in various ways. Obviously, some of those vetoed projects were worthwhile, others probably not so much. But the fact remains that a simple dialogue between DeSantis’s team and state lawmakers could have smoothed things out in advance, and helped to avoid some of the awkwardness that unfolded.
Conservative fans of DeSantis will view the episode through the prism of “fiscal conservatism” and see DeSantis as a budget watchdog. And there’s a lot to be said for that. Other media outlets have already criticized DeSantis for using his veto pen as a form of political payback. I say there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing a high level of political gamesmanship. The governor has line-item veto authority, granted to him through the state constitution, and those who engage with DeSantis on the political stage are starting to learn that he’s not a man to be trifled with.
But there’s a lot of ways to play the political game, and some of our nation’s best-loved and most respected leaders have traditionally found ways to wield political power in more subtle ways, especially when working to build a political base among like-minded leaders from the same political party.
Instead, last week’s episode was just the latest exhibit underscoring DeSantis’s impulsive leadership style, and it wasn’t even the only rug he pulled from under his Republican allies. In addition to the veto carnage, DeSantis also did an about face on $200 million in school funding that lawmakers had prepared for him to pull from school districts that had defied the governor’s mask mandate ban. In February, he’d clearly signaled he wanted to take the money from those school districts.
So certain were Republican lawmakers that the plan had DeSantis’s backing that House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine even tweeted that “the reckoning” had finally come for those defiant school districts. Fine later Thursday deleted the tweet when he realized DeSantis had changed his mind without any warning to his allies.
To DeSantis watchers around the country, the moves appear to be calculated for maximum appeal on the national stage, at the expense of relationships closer to home. Indeed, Florida Democrats seem so disorganized and in such disarray that DeSantis can probably afford to neglect relationships with his legislative branch allies and still come away with even more Republicans in both chambers when the winners are sworn in after November.
Democrats in Disarray
Whatever DeSantis is doing, it appears to be working. GOP consultants around the state, already polling races at the federal and state level, are seeing the same thing: Florida Democrats are poised to lose and lose big this November. By some calculations, a Republican supermajority appears to be possible in the House and Senate – the irony being that, if GOP lawmakers had the will, they could actually end up wielding more power than DeSantis himself, with the ability to override any of his vetoes.
The same destruction appears likely at the top of the Democratic ticket, where the spectre of defeat looms equally large: third-time gubernatorial candidate and two-time statewide loser Charlie Crist appears to be the Democrat’s best hope, but the former Republican-turned-Independent-
In an act of open defiance on Thursday, Florida College Democrats endorsed Crist’s opponent, Nikki Fried, excoriating Democrat leaders for lining up behind the turncoat Crist and leading their party down the same downtrodden path of defeat as yesteryear.
On the same day, one of the state’s most outspoken young Democrat leaders, State Representative Anna Eskamani, broke with her younger allies, making a personal political calculation to endorse Crist. The irony? Eskamani has long championed more women in politics, and was one of the young Democrat leaders featured in the book “See Jane Win,” the supposedly “inspiring” story of how more Democrat women came out of the woodwork to run for office following Hillary Clinton’s stunning 2016 loss to Donald Trump.
But through the endorsement of Crist, Eskamani showed she is less inspired by the prospect of other women winning elective office and more interested in her own career. Indeed, her snub of fellow females Nikki Fried and Annette Taddeo is a strong signal that she hopes to parlay her endorsement into a running mate nod from Crist. So desperate is Crist for support from younger Democrats that he may be willing to add Eskamani to the ticket – as a nice bonus, she and her sister might be able to persuade their reporter-turned-blogger “friend” Jason Garcia to start publishing favorable coverage of the infamously chameleonesque Crist.
Whatever Eskamani’s true motivation, her endorsement only added to the perception of a November Democrat dumpster fire that is sure to deliver big wins for Republicans, and gives DeSantis still more confidence that he’s got his gubernatorial reelection sewn up. So why not focus on 2024?