Bouie: Don’t be fooled; Ron DeSantis is a Bush-Cheney Republican

The standard view of DeSantis is that he comes out of Donald Trump’s populist Republican Party, a view the governor has been keen to cultivate.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

One of the strangest ads of the 2022 election cycle was an homage to “Top Gun,” featuring Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. In it, DeSantis is the “Top Gov,” setting his sights on his political enemies: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is your governor speaking. Today’s training evolution: dogfighting, taking on the corporate media.”

The ad concludes with DeSantis in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft, rallying viewers to take on the media’s “false narratives.”

The imagery plays on the governor’s resume. He was never a pilot, of course, but he was in the Navy, where he was a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps of military lawyers from 2004 to 2010. DeSantis served in Iraq and at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay and made his military career a centerpiece of his 2018 campaign for governor. “Service is in my DNA,” he wrote at the time. “My desire to serve my country has been my goal and my calling.”

In recent weeks, we have learned a little more about what that service actually entailed, details that weren’t more widely known at the time of his 2018 race.

As a lawyer at Guantánamo Bay, according to a report by Michael Kranish in The Washington Post, DeSantis endorsed the force-feeding of detainees.

“Detainees were strapped into a chair, and a lubricated tube was stuffed down their nose so a nurse could pour down two cans of a protein drink,” Kranish wrote. “The detainees’ lawyers tried and failed to stop the painful practice, arguing that it violated international torture conventions.”

The reason to highlight these details of DeSantis’ service at Guantánamo is that it helps place the Florida governor in his proper political context. The standard view of DeSantis is that he comes out of Donald Trump’s populist Republican Party, a view the governor has been keen to cultivate as he vies for leadership within the party. And to that end, DeSantis has made himself into the presumptive heir apparent to Trump in look, language and attitude.

But what if we centered DeSantis in Guantánamo, Iraq and the war on terrorism rather than the fever house of the MAGA Republican Party, a place that may not be a natural fit for the Yale- and Harvard-educated lawyer? What if we treated DeSantis not as a creature of the Trump years but as a product of the Bush ones? How, then, would we understand his position in the Republican Party?

For a moment in American politics — before Hurricane Katrina, the grinding occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis that nearly toppled the global economy — George W. Bush represented the clear future of the Republican Party.

And what was Bush Republicanism? It promised, despite the circumstances of his election in 2000, to build a new, permanent Republican majority that would relegate the Democratic Party to the margins of national politics. It was ideologically conservative on most questions of political economy but willing to bend in order to win points with key constituencies, as when Bush backed a large prescription drug program under Medicare.

Bush’s Republicanism was breathtakingly arrogant — “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” one unnamed aide famously told The New York Times Magazine in 2004 — contemptuous of expertise and hostile to dissent, as when the president condemned the Democratic-controlled Senate of 2002 as “not interested in the security of the American people.”

Bush’s Republicanism was also cruel, as exemplified in the 2004 presidential election, when he ran, successfully, against the marriage rights of gay and lesbian Americans, framing them as a threat to the integrity of society itself. “Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society,” he said, endorsing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the most distinctive quality of Bush’s Republicanism — or rather, Bush’s Republican Party — was that it was still an elite-driven institution. He ran a Brooks Brothers administration whose militarism, jingoism and cruelty were expressed through bureaucratic niceties and faux technical language, like “enhanced interrogation.”

To me, DeSantis looks like a Bush Republican as much as or more than he does a Trump one. He shares the majoritarian aspirations of Bush as well as the open contempt for dissent. DeSantis shares the cruelty, with a national political image built on, among other things, a campaign of stigma against trans and other gender-nonconforming Americans.

Despite his pretenses to the contrary, DeSantis is very much the image of a member of the Republican establishment. That’s one reason he has the almost lock-step support of the organs of that particular elite, for whom he represents a return to normalcy after the chaos and defeat of the Trump years.

It is not for nothing that in the fight for the 2024 Republican nomination, DeSantis leads Trump among Republicans with a college degree — the white-collar conservative voters who were Bush stalwarts and Trump skeptics.

The upshot of all of this — and the reason to make this classification in the first place — is that it is simply wrong to attribute the pathologies of today’s Republican Party to the influence of Trump alone. If DeSantis marks the return of the Bush Republican, then he is a stark reminder that the Republican Party of that era was as destructive and dysfunctional as the one forged by Trump.

You could even say that if DeSantis is the much-desired return to “normal” Republicans, then Republican normalcy is not much different from Republican deviancy.

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.