What Is Going On With the Ron DeSantis Redemption Arc?
How can Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis recover from his failed presidential campaign?
A federal judge has dismissed the Walt Disney Company’s lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It is yet another win for the Florida governor, and likely his most important win to date given it is his first major victory since suspending his disappointing presidential campaign.
Upon dropping out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination, DeSantis endorsed Trump and has refocused on what has been the most popular state in conservative circles since DeSantis’s tenure as governor began. Has the DeSantis redemption arc begun?
On Wednesday in Tallahassee, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor rendered his decision that Disney lacked standing in its First Amendment lawsuit against the Florida governor, in which the entertainment behemoth claimed that the Florida government’s efforts to dismantle Disney’s special privileges was reprisal for Disney’s opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Act. Disney’s lawsuit, filed April 26, 2023, claimed that DeSantis’s government was waging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint,” and that DeSantis’s “targeted campaign of government retaliation…now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”
Just prior to the launch of his presidential campaign, I traveled down to Tallahassee to interview DeSantis on the alleged war on Disney and its broader implications—how DeSantis thinks about sovereignty, the economy, and, what would become most important in the months that followed, executive power and its uses.
“What the legislature did was affect Reedy Creek, which is a public entity,” DeSantis told me then in defense of the Florida government’s actions. As for Disney’s lawsuit, “[the legislature] didn’t do anything to touch Disney’s free speech rights. Did they pull ABC’s broadcast license? Did they say Disney can’t speak out about anything? Of course not.”
“The idea you have a First Amendment right to corporate welfare or having a local government that you basically control with no accountability is ridiculous,” the governor said at one point. “Sometimes you just need an executive to come in and tell them to pound sand,” DeSantis said at another.
Winsor’s decision to dismiss the case ended up being much narrower in scope than DeSantis’s portrayal of the issues at the heart of Florida’s battle with Disney. This is par for the course when it comes to the right-sympathetic members of the court (Winsor is a Trump appointee), but that doesn’t make DeSantis’ diagnosis in any way incorrect.
In the 17-page decision, Winsor claimed that Disney did not have standing to sue DeSantis because DeSantis had already appointed members to the board of the governing district. “Because Disney seeks injunctive relief, it must allege an imminent future injury,” Winsor’s decision argued, “and it has not alleged facts showing that any imminent future appointments will contribute to its harm.” The only harm he saw was that Disney has to operate “under a board it cannot control.”
The judge also argued that a party cannot challenge a constitutional law on free-speech grounds because the party believes there were unconstitutional motives. “It is settled law that ‘when a statute is facially constitutional, a plaintiff cannot bring a free-speech challenge by claiming that the lawmakers who passed it acted with a constitutionally impermissible purpose,’” Winsor claimed.
Furthermore, Winsor pointed out that the law that stripped Disney World’s privileges did not single out the company by name, but rather targeted a group of Florida’s many special districts.
While Disney “faces the brunt of the harm,” Winsor admitted, “No one reading the text of the challenged laws would suppose them directed against Disney.”
“The laws do not mention Disney…. There is no ‘close enough’ exception,” wrote Winsor.
Disney has appealed the decision and claimed in a statement that “this is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here. If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and give license to states to weaponize their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with.” The case now makes its way to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Meanwhile, other lawsuits, one lodged by the appointed members of the newly minted Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD) against Disney and Disney returning fire in a countersuit, make their way through the state court system. Disney’s motion to dismiss the CFTOD case was previously denied, and the next phase of the lawsuit is slated to begin in March.
If DeSantis can continue to score victories not only in the courtroom against Disney, but for more conservative priorities in the increasingly red, electorally crucial state of Florida in his final two years as governor, is it safe to start liking Ron DeSantis again?
There may be other opportunities in store for DeSantis, too, if Trump takes back the White House this November. In a recent column, my TAC colleague Jude Russo drew a comparison between DeSantis and Trump to Augustus and Agrippa. “DeSantis is an Agrippa,” Russo wrote. “Effective but unlovely…. It would be folly and a great shame to leave him unused in a Trump cabinet.”
The art of statesmanship is part visionary, part technocratic. Trump has always had the vision, but his lack of governmental; know-how opened him up to all kinds of betrayals stemming from personnel who had the know-how but refused to support the president’s vision. DeSantis, at least when it comes to the Sunshine state (whether his strategy is scalable to the national level is another question), has that know-how to effectuate Trump’s vision if Trump commands him to sic’em.
It’s no small coincidence that what DeSantis’s presidential campaign lacked most was vision and optics. On the stump, strange verbal and facial tics, posture, and his alleged platform shoes plagued DeSantis’s doomed presidential campaign. (It’s worth noting that when I interviewed DeSantis in his office last year, he didn’t have any of these problems.) It was apparent in his retail politics, too. He shook babies and kissed hands when it should have been the other way around. It led to a prevailing narrative that DeSantis was inauthentic or even downright autistic.
How does DeSantis recover? When your star shines a little less brightly, it might be best to operate—efficiently, silently, ruthlessly—in the shadows.
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