Opinion | Why Wasn’t DeSantis the Guy?

The DeSantis presidential pitch often was about the governor as this singular force stopping societal decline. His vision encompassed schools, corporations, the markets and government bureaucracy. This, at times, uneasily subverted traditional conservative ideas about federalism and the individual — using government to create space for a specific conception of the individual and interfering with business and local government, if necessary, to do it. The pitch wasn’t especially about preserving the Everglades or raising teacher pay or getting bridges rebuilt after hurricanes, which he has worked to do and are actually the kind of problems people have now.

Mr. DeSantis marries intensity and action, which might be the source of some of the weirdness that followed him and his campaign, from the Twitter Spaces launch to the X.com videos with the edgelord aesthetics. He talks about physically rebuilding bridges, but in this way where only he can marshal the powers of the state to get a bridge rebuilt on time in crisis, rather than as effective and collaborative management unfazed by events.

In November, Mr. DeSantis hosted a New Hampshire event dedicated to medical freedom, where he campaigned with Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the mNRA vaccine skeptic he made surgeon general. In contrast, the next day at a series of Nikki Haley events, the pandemic only came up in glancing mentions, about Covid relief fraud and mental health crises.

Dr. Ladapo talked about Mr. DeSantis and the pandemic in Ayn Rand-esque terms of historical sweep. “You could see that he recognized that this wasn’t some battle over policy, like ‘I think this is the way we should do it.’ ‘No, I think this is the way we should do it.’ No, that’s not what this was. That’s not what this is,” he told attendees. “This was a battle over the existence of human beings, the autonomy of human beings, the ability, the right or the position of human beings over institutions.”

Mr. DeSantis’s ascension into a plausible Trump challenger coincided with one of the most disruptive periods in American life. It’s clear that some people have had their lives reorganized by the pandemic in a frontal, tangible way that wrecked their health or intensified their political views, and other people never want to hear about the pandemic again, no matter how much those years might have changed any aspect of their lives. For Republicans who want to forget 2020 and 2021, the valor found back then in Mr. DeSantis might not have been all that much about crushing the woke left and a corroded society, and more just about permission to move on from the pandemic earlier than most states.

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