In DC and Tallahassee, a split-screen moment for the Republican Party

Florida Governor Inauguration DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis stands at the podium on the steps of the historic Capitol as he gives a speech after being sworn in to serve a second term as the governor of Florida, in Tallahassee, Fla., on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. (Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via AP) Alicia Devine/AP

In DC and Tallahassee, a split-screen moment for the Republican Party

IN DC AND TALLAHASSEE, A SPLIT-SCREEN MOMENT FOR THE REPUBLICAN PARTY. Two contrasting realities of the present-day Republican Party were on display on Tuesday. In the House of Representatives, 20 members of the GOP’s so-called chaos caucus blocked the efforts of 202 fellow Republicans to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as speaker. The move led to a once-in-a-century standoff that paralyzed the House. Members cannot be sworn in, committees cannot be formed, and lawmakers cannot do any work until the deadlock is broken, whenever that might be.

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, newly reelected Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) took the oath of office for a second term with a ringing statement of accomplishment and ambition that could well be the foundation of a 2024 run for the Republican presidential nomination. Upon finishing his inaugural address, DeSantis immediately got to work, which was more than Republicans in the House could say.

The mess in the House is the latest chapter in a decadeslong fight inside the GOP. It goes back to Tea Party days, when some conservative Republicans became increasingly frustrated with the workings of the House in the years after the GOP won the majority in 2010. They gave then-Speaker John Boehner fits over fanciful ideas, such as an ill-fated scheme to “defund Obamacare.” In early 2015, they formed the Freedom Caucus to pressure Republican leadership from a conservative direction. That led to more conflicts with Boehner, who quit in frustration in October 2015. The frustration continued, and intensified, through the speakership of Boehner’s successor, Paul Ryan. Then it intensified even more until the current meltdown.

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Contrast that to events in Tallahassee. Having won by a razor-thin margin in 2018, DeSantis proved to be an extraordinarily effective and popular conservative Republican governor. Voters rewarded him with a 19-point reelection victory, including wins in some areas of the state that had been dominated by Democrats for years.

In his second inaugural address, DeSantis reminded Floridians that he had kept the promises of his first campaign. “Four years ago, we promised to pursue a bold agenda,” he said. “We did just that and have produced results.” He went down a list: tax relief, regulatory relief, controlled spending, education reform, judicial restraint, natural resources reform, support for law enforcement, and more. He also touted his work in recovery efforts after Hurricane Michael in 2018 and Hurricane Ian in 2022.

But DeSantis did more than that to win the support of Republicans far beyond Florida. While the work of governing went on, he also stood up against wokeness in education and other areas of life. “When the world lost its mind — when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida was a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for our fellow Americans and even for people around the world,” he said. When confronted by the insanity — for example, when many were screaming “Don’t say gay!” at him — DeSantis stood his ground.

DeSantis promised more of the above in a second term — more tax relief, more education reform, more support for police and public safety officials, and continued sanity in government.

After discussing his own work, DeSantis broadened his scope to discuss the stark differences in governing — say, those between Florida and California — that have emerged in recent years. “These last few years have witnessed a great test of governing philosophies as many jurisdictions pursued a much different path than we have pursued here in the state of Florida,” he said. “Many of these cities and states have embraced faddish ideology at the expense of enduring principles. They have harmed public safety by coddling criminals and attacking law enforcement. They have imposed unreasonable burdens on taxpayers to finance unfathomable levels of public spending. They have harmed education by subordinating the interests of students and parents to partisan interest groups. They have imposed medical authoritarianism in the guise of pandemic mandates and restrictions that lack a scientific basis. This bizarre but prevalent ideology that permeates these policy measures purports to act in the name of justice for the marginalized, but it frowns upon American institutions, it rejects merit and achievement, and it advocates identity essentialism.”

“We reject this woke ideology,” DeSantis said. “We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy!”

Finally, DeSantis surveyed the national political scene. The political establishment in Washington is “floundering,” he said, which could be read as a general commentary on politics or a specific observation about the Republican mess in the House. Here is DeSantis’s bill of particulars:

The federal government has gone on an inflationary spending binge that has left our nation weaker and our citizens poorer, it has enacted pandemic restrictions and mandates — based more on ideology and politics than on sound science — and this has eroded freedom and stunted commerce. It has recklessly facilitated open borders, making a mockery of the rule of law, allowing massive amounts of narcotics to infest our states, importing criminal aliens, and greenlighting the flow of millions of illegal aliens into our country, burdening communities and taxpayers throughout the land. It has imposed an energy policy that has crippled our nation’s domestic production, causing energy to cost more for our citizens and eroding our nation’s energy security and, in the process, our national security. It wields its authority through a sprawling, unaccountable and out-of-touch bureaucracy that does not act on behalf of us, but instead looms over us and imposes its will upon us.

It would be hard to find Republicans in the United States who have substantial disagreements with any of that. Yes, many other GOP officials and candidates say the same thing, mostly because it is true. But DeSantis has something most of them don’t: momentum and a record of success. Florida, he argues, is proof that the U.S. government does not have to continue on its current path, the path followed by President Joe Biden and a Democratic Party that has moved far to the left in recent years. DeSantis’s achievements in Florida, he argues, show that the path can be changed.

DeSantis finished his speech with a statement of core beliefs — “We embrace our founding creed that our rights are not granted by the courtesy of the state, but are endowed by the hand of the Almighty.” He went down a list of American greatness from the founding generation to victory in the Cold War. “It is our responsibility here in Florida to carry this torch,” he vowed.

The contrast between DeSantis’s speech and what was happening, at that very moment, in the House of Representatives could not have been greater. In Washington, Republicans are falling apart in the absence of leadership. Multiple agendas are at play, and no leader is strong to force competing factions to work with each other. Nationally, the GOP is in a moment of deep uncertainty about the course of its leadership: Will it be former President Donald Trump, now running a listless and erratic third presidential campaign, or someone new?

Across the Republican Party, not just in the House chamber, there is a shortage of clarity and purpose about the future. Except in Tallahassee.

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