As his opponents attack him over his Ukraine silence, Governor Ron DeSantis has ignored the kerfluffle and gone about the business of running the nation’s third most populous state.
Meanwhile, Russian tanks are rolling over the Ukrainian border, and occasionally rolling over cars driven by civilians, and the surreal and tragic war in Ukraine has become the hottest political issue of the year. The events in eastern Europe have even managed to smother news of President Joe Biden‘s U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson.
News cycles like this are nearly impossible for most political leaders to ignore, because they offer an opportunity to inject themselves into the news, or at the very least, avoid criticism for being silent. Many elected leaders across the nation have already weighed in, almost universally in support of Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky, but DeSantis has elected to remain curiously tight-lipped while the drama plays out.
Why not speak out, when worldwide sentiment appears to be universally in favor of Ukraine?
To shed some light on DeSantis’s thinking, we spoke with insiders and political operatives who have worked closely with DeSantis, and even with DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, who turned the issue around and questioned why so many were looking to DeSantis for leadership on the issue.
“I can only assume it’s because we lack leadership at the federal level with Biden in the White House,” Pushaw said. “So people are looking to Governor DeSantis as a real leader to give his opinions, but he won’t give opinions on something that is outside his purview as governor of Florida.”
Democrats like Charlie Crist – who wants DeSantis’s job – aren’t buying it.
“If Gov. DeSantis can’t stand up for democracy in Ukraine,” Crist blasted out in a statement, “how can he look Floridians in the eye and promise to fight for democracy in Cuba, Venezuela, China and elsewhere?”
He’s not alone. Other critics – some of them Republicans – noted that the governor’s silence is out of step with almost every other Republican in the country, except two: former President Donald Trump, and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, who is running for U.S. Senate in Ohio.
In Trump’s case, he’s trying to have it both ways. The day before the invasion, Trump made headlines when he called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “genius.” At CPAC this weekend in Orlando, however, Trump apparently sensed the political mood and made a passing reference to the bravery of Ukraine’s president.
Vance, meanwhile, appears to be desperate to gain traction for his Ohio senate campaign by sounding as Trumpy and “America first” as possible.
“I gotta be honest with you,” Vance said on a live-stream show last week, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”
After days of heart-wrenching images from Ukraine beamed into living rooms, his statement seems exceedingly cringeworthy and callous. And in fact, this weekend, Vance seemed to care a lot more about Ukraine than he first let on.
Which brings us to DeSantis. Is he trying to position himself as a cold, calculating Trumpian, or perhaps looking to stake out common ground with the former President? Or is he simply demonstrating a cold shrewdness, a willingness to put aside human empathy in exchange for political flexibility later on?
One former member of his inner circle suggested it’s more the latter than the former, that there’s simply no political reason for DeSantis to wade into a fast-moving international story like this, especially when American voters have extremely short attention spans and even shorter memories.
“He has no obligation to speak out on matters that aren’t in his job description,” said the person, who declined to be identified because of their previous working relationship with the governor. “He may be one of the favorites for the GOP nomination for president in 2024, but the fact is, he’s not a candidate yet. There’s no rulebook that says he needs to stake out a position on every issue. And by not doing so, he risks nothing, he remains flexible, and most important, he remains the center of attention because everyone still wants to know what he thinks.”
Another person familiar with DeSantis’s thinking had a similar observation.
“He’s the governor of a state, not a senator or congressman or federal official. He’s focused on Florida,” the person said. “He does not have authority over foreign policy, and I’m not sure why so many people expect him to comment.”
Other political observers echoed the sentiment, challenging anyone to make the case for why DeSantis should speak out on the matter, even if emotions are raw and American sentiment appears to be solidly behind the Ukrainians.
“There’s no upside for Ron to rush,” said a former DeSantis campaign advisor, providing a more cynical perspective. “He can wait for the economic ripple to hurt Americans and then make Biden own that. Worst case of avoiding the issue is that Ukrainian Floridians might not like him as much. But it’s not like he’s Neville Chamberlain for letting it play out a bit.”
Maybe those observers are correct in their political judgement – and perhaps DeSantis is making the right political move. But sometimes, America needs leaders that are willing to set aside the cold political calculations and demonstrate leadership through pure human empathy.
This is one of those times. DeSantis should issue a statement in support of Ukraine.