Let’s overread Ron DeSantis’s effort to deflect criticism on Fox News!

Scrambling to shift the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared on Fox News on Monday to assure the channel’s viewers that all is well. Over the course of his discussion with host Bret Baier, though, he made a particularly revealing comment about a recent controversy — one that, when held at a slight distance, tells us a lot about why his presidential campaign isn’t going particularly well at all.

Baier is a tougher interview than most of Fox News’s on-air personalities, meaning that DeSantis — whose political career can be credited largely to his appearances on Fox News — was on the defensive more than he is accustomed to. That held true once Baier raised the subject of the recent controversy over Florida’s new high school social studies curriculum and its suggestion that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Baier showed clips of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), another candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who has endorsed former president Donald Trump, criticizing the line.

“You doubled down and you said anyone saying that” — that is, offering criticism — “is essentially siding with Vice President Kamala Harris or the Democrats,” Baier said. “Is this a fight worth having?”

“We didn’t pick the fight, Bret!” DeSantis replied. “Kamala Harris got on a jet at taxpayer expense and flew to Florida to lie about the African American history standards that were developed.”

He went on to insist that the fight was nonetheless one he was relishing, since “you can’t bend the knee to the left’s lies. When the left lies and creates these phony narratives, you’ve got to push back.” DeSantis mentioned that the new curriculum was “born out of the fight against [critical race theory] because this is true history.”

In other words, DeSantis did pick the fight, as has been well-established. But he wants to play the victim nonetheless.

I walked through the path that DeSantis took to this point last week. In 2021, he began doing in earnest the type of things that potential presidential candidates do. He decided that his focus would be on combating “woke”-ism, a vague term he uses to broadly describe efforts to promote diversity or consider America’s racial history with nuance. When Fox News was hammering its viewers over the purported dangers of critical race theory, DeSantis snatched up the banner and pushed his way to the front of the parade. He advocated and signed into law the “S.T.O.P. Woke Act,” which mandated reconsideration of his state’s social studies curriculum.

Then, as the curriculum was being developed, his appointee at the Department of Education nominated six new members for the group writing the standards — six conservatives, often DeSantis allies, who now constituted a majority of members. And the result was a curriculum that — in addition to assiduously weeding out anything that might come within 200 feet of any concepts that could ever be perceived as “CRT” — added the language suggesting that enslaved people might actually have benefited from slavery.

Particularly given how the Department of Education had overhauled its civics curriculum to less-than-rave reviews last year, also downplaying enslavement, this outcome was not a surprise. If anything, it was preordained. And it was preordained because DeSantis wanted to be the guy who, as he says all the time, leads a state where “woke goes to die.”

Baier showed clips of him saying that before asking his question about the curriculum, in fact. But then there was DeSantis — hey, I didn’t choose this fight! Why is the bear swiping at me? All I did was poke it repeatedly!

DeSantis’s initial response to the controversy was similar. Asked about it last month, he told a reporter that “I didn’t do it” and that she should “talk to them about it,” referring to the Education Department.

DeSantis tells me FL’s new Black history standards are ‘rooted in whatever is factual,’ when I asked him his thoughts on middle school instruction on ‘how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit’ – pic.twitter.com/Ae5YVYGIOP

— Kit Maher (@KitMaherCNN) July 22, 2023

This is not a bold stance to take.

It would be interesting to see how Trump would respond if he were in DeSantis’s position. He, too, often withers when directly confronted, pivoting to a position of defensiveness. But he does so after having established a robust reputation as a brawler, which DeSantis has not.

When DeSantis ran in 2018, he adopted Trump’s political rhetoric explicitly. With his “where woke goes to die,” he’s adopting it implicitly, suggesting he’ll batter the left into submission. But he’s a wonk, not a wrassler. And the 2024 Republican nominating fight is where wonk goes to die.

“These guys down in Florida, they didn’t have an agenda,” DeSantis insisted to Baier, talking about the people who developed the curriculum. “They were just trying to shoot straight.”

Maybe he believes this is true, that he is in fact leveling the playing field for his side. If so, it’s akin to Fox News’s old “fair and balanced” motto: The balance comes not from fairly presenting each side but in boosting his own position so it can be competitive with — and overtake — the opposition.

It’s also timid in a surprising way, a throwing up of his hands. In a Republican primary fight where the front-runner is beloved for his aggressive disparagement of the opposition, being the guy who says he’s killing “woke” while complaining to Baier about how “woke” is fighting back doesn’t seem like a viable path to victory.

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