NY Times Magazine’s big profile of Ron DeSantis has a big problem

Journalists should look past spectacle to explain what he would do as president

The New York Times Magazine’s Sunday cover story asks, “Is Ron DeSantis the Future of the Republican Party?” The 9,500-word feature details his rise, fueled by Fox News interviews and Donald Trump’s approval, from backbench congressman to Florida governor, and suggests DeSantis might prove “a more disciplined heir to Trump.” Times reporter Matt Flegenheimer lays out the broad right-wing coalition that supports DeSantis, from election conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers to major GOP donors and National Review tribunes. And he posits an explanation for why that coalition has turned to DeSantis since the 2020 election, pointing to his authoritarian bearing and his fights with the media and the left over his state’s COVID-19 measures and “Don’t Say Gay” education bill.

All of this is important; much of it has been covered here at Media Matters as well. But what’s missing from the Times story, which positions DeSantis as a strong contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is what a President DeSantis might do in the White House. Flegenheimer offers virtually no discussion of DeSantis’ views on basic political issues like taxes, government spending, environmental regulation, health care, and the social safety net. At times, he seems to go out of his way to focus on spectacle instead of providing such policy detail

While DeSantis has not announced a presidential bid — much less a policy platform — there’s certainly plenty to glean from his record in Washington and in Tallahassee. And the public will need reporters willing and able to scrutinize that record, as DeSantis’ handling of the media suggests he is adept at focusing attention where he wants it.

On Wednesday, for example, DeSantis took credit for sending about 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It’s a grotesque stunt that treats human beings experiencing enormous hardship as props, the idea for which he may have gotten from Fox host Tucker Carlson. But DeSantis knows that the move can win him right-wing acclaim — and that he can also channel any criticism he receives from mainstream media outlets or the left into more of it. Reporters’ attention ends up focused where he wants it, not on other questions about his record and possible future actions.

To wit:

In Congress, DeSantis cosponsored bills that would have reduced access to abortion. As governor, he signed into law a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, without exemptions for rape, incest, or human trafficking (the law is being reviewed by the Florida’s state Supreme Court). After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed similar legislation at the federal level. Would DeSantis sign such a law as president?

In Congress, DeSantis voted for Trump’s $1.9 trillion tax cut bill, favoring corporations and wealthy Americans while increasing the deficit. As governor, he used federal money from the American Recovery Act — which he opposed — to cut taxes while still maintaining a state budget that could afford bonuses for teachers and first responders. What would he do as president?

In Congress, DeSantis joined almost every other Republican in voting to repeal Obamacare, which would have thrown tens of millions of people off the health insurance rolls. As governor, he’s rejected expanding Medicaid eligibility, which would cover 800,000 Floridians while passing 90% of the cost to the federal government. What would he do as president?

The Times details DeSantis’ two-track media strategy. He is a constant presence in the right-wing press, boasting a strong relationship not only with Fox, but with “edgelord media types” he has courted with visits to the governor's mansion. But he “has not spoken extensively to a major nonconservative publication since summer 2020,” freezing out mainstream reporters while using them as a foil to further win over the right. 

That often leaves those journalists chasing the stories DeSantis deliberately creates to garner attention, like the Martha’s Vineyard migrant flight. But if he does end up the Republican presidential nominee, the public will need to know more about what he would do as president than what he’ll want to talk about.