Speaking at a luncheon two months into his term as Florida’s new secretary of education in early 2019, Richard Corcoran gave listeners a preview of what to expect from the state’s new governor, Ron DeSantis.
You could tell from his facial expressions, comments and tone Corcoran was impressed. And it would take a lot to impress him. Up to that point, Corcoran had spent nearly three decades working the halls of the capitol — as a staffer to Republican House leaders and speakers; as a Republican political consultant; eight-year member of the House and ultimately two years as Florida speaker. In all that time, he had first-hand experience observing and working with previous Florida governors.
DeSantis impressed him like no other governor. Watch out, Corcoran told his listeners. Big things are about to happen. “He is all about the BHAGs,” Corcoran said.
He is all about “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.”
Corcoran warned us. And he was right.
Governors in the margin
Sure, every governor is different. And every governor, because of unforeseen circumstances — savings and loan failures, hurricanes, real estate depressions, mass shootings at bars and schools, pandemics — is forced to adjust to the moment.
But when you look back at the eight governors who preceded DeSantis, a simplified way to describe their terms and the Legislatures with which they worked is that of in-the-margin tradition. They operated mostly within legislative, political and fiscal guardrails, rarely straying into the extremes.
Throughout the previous 48 years, Florida’s governors and Legislatures annually focused on the fiscal state of the state — adopting a balanced budget; avoiding tax increases; managing Florida’s growth; and meddling with the perennial issue of education — its funding and how to improve Florida’s low-rated public schools and the state university system.
Of the rare, bold initiatives that governors shepherded through the Legislature, there was Lawton Chiles’ last-minute, $11 billion settlement against the tobacco industry, still being paid today. Jeb Bush triggered the school choice revolution that has grown every year in Florida and spread nationwide. Rick Scott pushed lawmakers to cut spending and regulations, igniting Florida’s economic turnaround and boom after the Great Recession. Unemployment dropped from 11% to 3%; and employment expanded by 1.5 million jobs during his two terms.
But after DeSantis’ surprising election in 2018, he immediately began to deliver what Corcoran predicted — BHAGs.
Out of the norm for conservative Republicans, DeSantis promised to spend $2.5 billion over four years to clean up Florida’s waterways. He promised big educational reforms — eliminating and replacing Florida’s hated assessment testing; placing greater emphasis on vocational and technical training; and expanding school choice.
In his first inaugural address, DeSantis signaled he was going to be different — a standard promise up to which few politicians live. But DeSantis pledged:
“I will not be a rudderless vessel in this endeavor; my compass will be the principles reflected in the constitutional oath I have just taken, and for which Americans have given their lives: that our rights are endowed by God, not government; that we the people loan power to government under the Constitution in order to protect our rights; that government’s role is not to run our lives for us but to provide what Lincoln called an ‘open field and fair chance for one’s industry, enterprise and intelligence.’
“Alexander Hamilton wrote, ‘Energy in the executive is the leading character in the definition of good government.’ I agree. So let there be no misunderstanding: As governor, I will lead with purpose and conviction … ”
He has done that and more. And because of forces borne from the chaos engulfing Donald Trump and Joe Biden over the past six years, DeSantis did what he said he would do — lead with conviction. He thrust himself into the vortex of a civil war over the soul of our nation.
His power sword: The law
This is a political world totally different from that of his Republican predecessors. They were traditional conservatives (except for Charlie Crist) who professed allegiance to limited government, lower taxes, less regulation.
But DeSantis has been an activist warrior, leading the charge, waving his gubernatorial power sword as the protector of Floridians’ American values. He unapologetically and aggressively has used “the law” and his constitutional authority as powerful weapons to fight back, stop or eradicate the enemy — “the woke mob” as he calls it; the far-left, DC progressives and establishment; and against perhaps his most despised enemy, the media.
Given his 1 million-vote margin in his reelection, Florida voters decisively approved his boldness. It’s as if his voters were saying: It’s about time someone stood up to the education indoctrinators and stood up for the parents and students. It’s about time someone told the BLM rioters they wouldn’t be tolerated here. It’s about time a governor stood up to the university CRT crowd. It’s about time someone said transgender men cannot and will not compete in Florida’s women’s athletics. It’s about time someone purged the school libraries of pornographic books that elementary school children should not be reading. It’s about time a governor stood up against progressive corporations that meddle in state politics.
DeSantis did all that with the law — and with compliant Republican majorities in the House and Senate that will have passed by the end of the current legislative session the most far-reaching conservative agenda in the past two years in the United States.
The list of DeSantis BHAGs goes on: tort reform; school choice for all; constitutional carry of firearms; one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country; a prohibition of taxpayers’ funds invested in corporations following ESG governance policies, to name a few.
As one observer of Florida politics told us: “He is using Florida as an example for the country.”
The man for the time
Like him or not, give DeSantis credit for being bold, decisive and courageous; for operating according to his principles, not by the results of polls and the media narratives.
You can say he is a populist who fights for the people and every day takes on mano-a-mano the entrenched corporate and political elites (A Donald Trump of Florida?)
You can also say DeSantis certainly is not a traditional conservative. Late Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek described conservatives as having “widespread opposition to drastic change.” That is not DeSantis.
Likewise, Republican politicians have forever tried to portray themselves as proponents of limited and less government — a pledge up to which they have never lived. That is not DeSantis either.
DeSantis fully embraces the Alexander Hamilton quote that an active executive — a governor who uses the law to get his way — is the definition of good government.
He has used it as a cudgel against his enemies and as a sword to protect and expand Floridians’ liberties. Whether it’s good government depends on your perspective. But for sure, in the past 50 years, no Florida governor has exhibited monarchical power and authority like DeSantis.
Like all before him, he has adjusted to the times, and is the man for the times. So far, his activist warrior approach has worked. Our fear is the old saying about power: It corrupts. Like cancer, it can consume an ego.