On paper, George McClellan was as good a commander as the U.S. had available in 1861. But he was reluctant to attack despite his numerical and tactical advantages. So in November 1862, President Lincoln removed Little Mac as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Thus began the procession of Lincoln’s failed generals — Ambrose Burnside, the sideburn’s namesake; Joe Hooker, whose proclivities might have popularized the slang term for sex workers; George Meade — before the president landed on the unlikely Ulysses S. Grant, who put down the Confederates within a year.
Lincoln was willing to be wrong. That’s what good leaders do. They learn from mistakes. They adapt to new information or changing circumstances. They don’t dig their heels in.
Now, as then, politics doesn’t readily reward such flexibility. Lincoln paid a price for firing one high-profile general after another while the war effort stagnated. Until weeks before the 1864 election, he was certain he would lose — to George McClellan himself, now Lincoln’s presidential challenger.
Changing course is perceived as indecision, and indecision as weakness. When political ambitions are built upon impervious hubris, even the hint of weakness can be fatal.
And so it is that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, having spent a year sowing the wind, is in denial about the whirlwind his state is reaping. By aggressively disregarding scientific expertise in order to curry favor with Donald Trump’s base, DeSantis has paved a path to the White House that allows no room for deviation, no matter how many bodies lie between him and the Oval.
The numbers don’t lie. Florida by far leads the nation in new COVID cases and deaths. Its ICUs are packed. Its hospitals are facing critical staffing shortages. And less than half its population — and less than a third of those under 45 — are vaccinated.
DeSantis, however, has declared the pandemic over, whether the pandemic agrees or not. His re-election campaign sells “Don’t Fauci My Florida” koozies. He argues that mask mandates and capacity limits are a form of leftist control. In his words, “We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state.” (Biomedical security state is a new one.)
He hasn’t merely refused to react to his state’s renewed COVID crisis. He restricted anyone else from doing anything, either: He forbade local governments from issuing their own COVID regulations. He (probably unconstitutionally) banned private companies from requiring customers to be vaccinated. He threatened to cut off funding for school districts that required masks. When several did so anyway, he made students who felt “COVID bullied” eligible for private school vouchers.
This is DeSantis’ schtick: He is a champion of freedom. Freedom is worth the risk. Also, the COVID outbreak isn’t his fault.
This spring, his strategy appeared to be paying off. DeSantis blustered while Florida’s urban areas imposed mask mandates and other COVID restrictions, keeping the state’s caseloads in line with the rest of the country. In May, with vaccinations bringing the pandemic under control, DeSantis signed an executive order blocking local governments from enacting COVID rules and took a victory lap.
Then came the Delta variant. On Saturday, Florida posted a record of nearly 24,000 new cases. ICUs all over the state were filling up. The situation has changed. But instead of adapting, DeSantis looked for scapegoats: “media hysteria,” was one; also Joe Biden, for not securing the Southern border, because immigrants crossing the Rio Grande are somehow to blame for the outbreak in Duval County. And Florida children will soon return to classrooms with the Delta variant running rampant, no local restrictions, no universal mask mandates, no vaccine available to anyone under 12, and evidence hinting that Delta may put kids at greater risk of illness.
Faced with similar (though less severe) circumstances, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he regretted signing a bill overriding local mask mandates. DeSantis has no such regrets, or if he does, he won’t voice them. Unlike Hutchinson, he’s got his eye on the 2024 presidential nomination, already looking past his assumed gubernatorial re-election next year. (History suggests he’s not wrong: The hapless Florida Democrats will spend a bazillion dollars against him and lose.)
DeSantis matters not just because Florida is the country’s COVID epicenter, but also because he’s the odds-on favorite to be the Republican standard-bearer in three years. And if it’s not him, chances are it will be someone in a similar vein. Open disdain for public health officials has taken root among conservative populists — c.f., Rand Paul; Ted Cruz — alongside unbending rigidity in the face of new evidence.
Circumstances are always in flux. Not just with COVID — which, as viruses do, will continue to mutate. But with the activities of foreign actors, friendly and otherwise. With the science behind the climate crisis. With any number of problems that deserve more than demagoguery.
Amid perpetual evolution, good leadership requires a willingness to learn and adapt, even if course corrections are subtle and mistakes aren’t broadcast. (Political realities are what they are.) But those who insist on plowing ahead, hoping bravado will suffice until fortune returns or tragedy subsides, well …
On Friday, Florida reported a record 134,506 new COVID cases over the previous seven days. It has nearly 14,000 people — adults and children — hospitalized with COVID. About 90 of its residents are dying every day, comprising a fifth of the country’s COVID deaths.
Ron DeSantis has not reconsidered.
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