Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Bat: Ron DeSantis Is on Deck
As a 12-year-old in 1991, DeSantis was part of a team from Dunedin, Florida, that qualified for the Little League World Series, the global youth baseball championship event held every summer since 1947 in the hills of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “We were like local celebrities for a while,” he recalled 10 years later for an article published by the Yale Daily News. “We were the lead story in the local newspapers and on the front page of the Tampa area newspapers.”
In 1991, the Little League World Series hadn’t yet morphed into the two-week-long competition featuring 20 teams and wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN that it is today. Even so, it was newsworthy enough to lead local news coverage back home in Florida and to give young Ronald DeSantis, as he was listed on Dunedin’s roster, his first mention in an Associated Press wire report: He pitched five innings and hit a home run as Dunedin won, 23–7, against a team from Saudi Arabia in a consolation game on the tournament’s second day. Perhaps DeSantis was thinking back to that blowout victory when, a week after the 2022 midterm elections, a reporter asked the governor to respond to a forgettable barb from former President Donald Trump, and the newly reelected governor responded: “At the end of the day, I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night.”
For Republicans across most of the country, DeSantis’ victory was a consolation prize for otherwise disappointing GOP results.
But in Florida, DeSantis was a star player on the front pages once again. His coattails carried Republicans to a supermajority in both state legislative chambers. For many in the GOP, his victory seemed to confirm that DeSantis was not just a rising star in the Republican Party but the next MVP.
DeSantis’ scoreboard view of politics is a natural fit for a Republican Party that has benched its former interest in any particular set of principles or policies in order to prioritize winning above all else. If winning requires embracing tried and true limited government policies, great. But if winning requires, as it more often seems to these days in conservative circles, wielding the power of the state against your enemies, that seems fine for Republicans too.
But what do they need to win? Polls suggest that many Republicans are looking for, essentially, a relief pitcher—someone who can take over for Trump, the tiring starting pitcher of the MAGA movement—while others believe the starter has another inning in him, at least. If the GOP decides to make a call to the bullpen, DeSantis figures to be first in line.
The qualities that make an effective chief executive and a useful relief pitcher are surprisingly similar. Both get called upon in the middle of ongoing action. Sometimes they have to step in with the bases loaded and the game tied. Other times, their job is to maintain a steady course and protect a comfortable lead. It’s a job that requires a cool head, a consistent delivery, and trusting the other guys on the field with you.
That’s the argument for DeSantis. More than that, it’s also the role that polls suggest many Republican voters are hoping their next presidential nominee will fill—and that has implications in the realms of both politics and policy.
But the governor doesn’t seem to be content with the important, but often overlooked, role of reliever. When DeSantis’ campaign auctioned off 500 replica baseball cards as a fundraiser for the governor’s 2022 reelection effort, the photo on the front was of a college-aged DeSantis holding a bat over his head, arms flexed, waiting on a pitch to smash. DeSantis is “going to bat” for Florida, promised one campaign ad hawking the cards.
For the past few years, he’s attempted to rebrand himself as a bombastic power hitter, ready to take a huge swing at whatever pitch the other team throws his way. That’s gotten DeSantis more attention from the fans and media—chicks dig the long ball, after all, and so do Republicans—but it has come with a cost.
In politics, unlike baseball, these two positions are not quite so mutually exclusive. But understanding how DeSantis fits into both roles reveals the tension between the competing claims at the center of his prospective candidacy. On one hand, he’s a competent conservative who has overseen a successful state through a challenging time—the type of pitcher you can trust when there are runners on base. On the other, he’s a brash anti-woke slugger whose authoritarian antics draw more attention, by design, than the results of his big swings.
However conservatives might rationalize away that tension during the coming season, libertarians can at least be heartened by DeSantis’ tendency to strike out when he takes a big cut at the Constitution. Indeed, while DeSantis might have come up through the farm system of a limited-government team, he’s donned a very different uniform since reaching the big leagues.
Big Leagues, Small Government
In college at Yale, DeSantis captained the baseball team while working on his undergraduate degree, posting a solid .313 batting average during his four years. But instead of pursuing sports, DeSantis went into law—and then politics. He shipped up to Harvard, earned a law degree, served in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, then moved back to Florida to run for Congress.
People have been coming to Florida for decades, and not just to watch spring training. That population boom has translated into more political power—the state has gained at least one seat in Congress following every census since 1930—and in 2012 there were two newly minted districts needing to be filled. With no incumbent to get in the way, DeSantis won a six-way Republican primary, then got 57 percent of the vote in the general election to carry a newly drawn GOP-leaning district that stretched south of Jacksonville along the Atlantic coast, including Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.
DeSantis had made it into the big leagues—and the game was changing.
DeSantis arrived in Congress in much the same way that he now hopes to arrive in the White House: by following the path carved by an unexpected revolution within the Republican Party. Two years before his first congressional campaign, the Tea Party wave had crashed across the midterm elections, carrying dozens of new Republican candidates into elected offices at all levels of government on the promise of shrinking the size and cost of government and restoring constitutional principles.
As he launched his first campaign for elected office, DeSantis eagerly hopped aboard the trend. “The Constitution is the focal point of American political life, providing the federal government its sole source of authority and safeguarding many of the God-given rights that Americans cherish,” DeSantis wrote in his 2011 book Dreams From Our Founding Fathers.
The book’s title and cover are unsubtle. It was meant as a direct response to Barack Obama’s own memoir, Dreams from My Father, and it alternated between being a love letter to the Framers and a condemnation of what DeSantis saw as then-President Obama’s betrayal of their principles.
“The reaction against the policies of Obama and his congressional allies by a large number of Americans has been motivated by their sense that the transformational change instituted in the nation’s capital betrayed” the principles and values outlined in the Constitution, DeSantis wrote, “by their fear that the Republic was being unmoored from her limited government roots.”
As a work of political writing, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers is clichéd and unmemorable. Today, nearly a decade since the Tea Party wave petered out and after the GOP traded talk of first principles for America First, it almost reads like a spoof of that bygone period in conservative politics.
But the book is notable as a point of reference in DeSantis’ career arc. He entered Congress as a firebrand for limited government and constitutional principles—and mostly lived up to that billing.
Shortly after taking office in 2013, he voted against providing federal funds to states and localities hit by Hurricane Sandy—something that’s not easy for a lawmaker from Florida to do—and pointedly criticized Congress’ “put it on the credit card mentality” that had driven the national debt to the now-quaint figure of $17 trillion.
He was a supporter of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to balance the federal budget by 2030. He was one of the founding members of the originally libertarian-ish House Freedom Caucus and was involved in the faction’s efforts to unseat House Speaker John Boehner in favor of Ryan in 2015. He supported the near-miss 2017 “Repeal and Replace” effort that would have undone large portions of Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. (And, in two appearances at the annual congressional baseball game, DeSantis posted a .333 batting average.)
DeSantis was, in short, a consummate small-government Republican congressman during the times when it was in vogue to be a small-government Republican. But he also seemed to have a sense that a curveball was coming.
When Boehner complained that Freedom Caucus members were acting out against the Republican establishment because it was helping them raise money for future campaigns, DeSantis told National Review that Boehner was getting it backward. “I don’t think that they would be able to generate outrage or generate dissatisfaction where none existed,” he said. “I think they’re tapping into an existing dissatisfaction with Republican leadership and with Washington, D.C., more generally.”
That dissatisfaction with Republican leadership culminated, a year later, with Republican voters choosing a political neophyte and former reality television star as their nominee for the presidency. With Trump’s endorsement, DeSantis narrowly won the 2018 gubernatorial election in Florida. In his victory speech that night, DeSantis was still playing the role of a small government conservative—he quoted Lincoln, talked up how Florida’s low tax rates translate into higher revenue by attracting investment, and credited outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott with having put the state on the right path, one that DeSantis would aim to follow.
He was, in short, promising to be an effective relief pitcher—a steady hand, taking over in the midst of a game.
Put Me In, Coach
As he gears up for a run at the GOP presidential nomination, that’s still what DeS
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