Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday will release his book, “The Courage to be Free,” to much anticipation ahead of his expected plunge into the 2024 presidential race. But it’s not the first time DeSantis has dabbled in authorship to jumpstart his political ambitions.
As a little-known Navy prosecutor on the cusp of a bid for a Jacksonville-area congressional seat, DeSantis in 2011 released the audaciously titled “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers.” He has joked that the book – from an obscure publisher that mostly dealt in children’s titles and a thriller series produced by a middle school principal – received little acclaim and was “read by about a dozen people.”
Unlike most entries in the political genre, it’s not a memoir and its autobiographical content is sparse. Rather, it’s a lengthy critique of Barack Obama’s political ascent and presidency, affixed on the hypothesis that the policies and philosophies of the country’s first Black executive diverged dramatically from the “enduring truths that the Constitution’s creators relied upon when they framed America’s foundational document.” It litigates the case by contrasting the then-president’s beliefs and background (pulling often from the Democrat’s own best-selling 1995 autobiography, “Dreams from My Father”) with the writings of the Founding Fathers.
It’s an instructive window into DeSantis’ governing beliefs, which at times seem to collide with his current leadership style but may soon inform his platform as he seeks higher office. It shows the early seeds of his disdain for the media, strongly suggests Christianity is foundational to the Constitution and demonstrates his early willingness to buck establishment forces in his own party.
As was the time, the book also serves as a full-throated defense of the tea party movement while eviscerating the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare law signed by Obama that provoked Republicans across the country – including DeSantis – to run for office. But it also makes historical arguments for the preservation of slavery and touches on Obama’s roots and Muslim outreach in ways that Democrats have already amplified ahead of DeSantis’ expected run for president.
Here are four takeaways from the book.
Using the Founding Fathers and the Federalist Papers as a guide
DeSantis’ views on the country’s founding document and the reach of the federal government is informed heavily by the Federalist Papers, the essays produced by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay to persuade New York to ratify the US Constitution. DeSantis writes that these essays represent “the single best source for the exposition of the principles underlying the Constitution of the United States of America.” It’s these writings that often buttress DeSantis’ criticisms of Obama and his insistence that the Democrat’s vision of America is antithetical to its foundational document. To DeSantis, the very notion of a “transformative” presidency flies in the face of the static role of the executive envisioned by the Framers. (The word “transform” appears 75 times throughout the short work.)
In his book, DeSantis argued that the Constitution’s creators expected representatives to be responsive – though not beholden – to public opinion, especially when pursuing far-reaching pieces of legislation. As it is, DeSantis said, Obama and his allies should have looked at the decades of opposition to health care reform as a sign not to mess with it.
DeSantis as governor, though, has often eschewed public opinion when taking actions and has proudly declared, “I’m not going to lead based on polls.” For example, DeSantis signed the most restrictive abortion law in Florida’s modern history despite consistent support for making the procedure accessible to women.
It’s not the only inconsistent view on leadership between DeSantis the author and DeSantis the politician.
DeSantis also took great umbrage at descriptions of Obama “casting his candidacy as one of singular historical significance and himself as a messianic figure.” But his own closing message to Florida voters last fall came in a 90-second video that suggested he was made by God on the eighth day to be a “fighter.”
He also compared Obama with George Washington, who, DeSantis wrote, possessed “a deep sense of humility, a humility that dovetailed superbly with the ethos of republican government.” And he noted that the Founding Fathers warned of a demagogue leader who “capitalizes on popular prejudices by peddling false claims, by employing questionable rhetorical techniques, or by intentionally sowing divisions among different factions or interests within the body politic.”
DeSantis as a Republican primary candidate for governor in 2018 campaigned almost exclusively on his endorsement from then-President Donald Trump, who often peddled false claims and once claimed, “I alone can fix it.”
Slavery as a necessary compromise
DeSantis at one point accused Obama of not paying fealty to the Constitution with the same vigor as his predecessors and suggested it was because of Obama’s inability to look beyond the codification of slavery at the nation’s birth. DeSantis wrote that after the 2010 midterms, “a noticeably agitated Obama even declared, ‘I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding’ ” – an opinion DeSantis called “seriously flawed.”
DeSantis throughout the book is dismissive of criticism that the Founding Fathers are tainted by their failure to end the enslavement of Black Americans, and he described the preservation of slavery and the three-fifths compromise as necessary to ensure the passage of the Constitution – “a view shared by strongly anti-slavery delegates like Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin,” he wrote.
“Slavery had been a fact of life throughout human history, and had existed in Britain’s American colonies for 150 years before the Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. In certain southern states, slave labor was the backbone of the entire economy, and immediately abolishing slavery would have represented an enlightened but also a monumental change – a revolution far more socially, politically and economically momentous than the American Revolution itself,” DeSantis wrote. “This is why there was no real chance that the Convention would abolish the peculiar institution of slavery.”
More recently, DeSantis has contended that the American revolution itself “caused people to question slavery” and birthed abolition movements.
“No one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights,” DeSantis said last year.
DeSantis went on to argue in his book that Obama’s views were more closely aligned with the slavery defender Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who lost the 1860 presidential election to Abraham Lincoln, than the great emancipator.
“Though Obama made every attempt to draw comparisons between himself and Lincoln, it is actually one of Lincoln’s foremost political adversaries and one of Obama’s predecessors, Stephen A. Douglas, who argued like Obama that the Founders meant to exclude non-whites from the natural rights clarion call contained in the Declaration of Independence.”
DeSantis would use this rhetorical trick again in the book to accuse Obama of ascribing to “the same doctrine that Chief Justice Taney invoked in Dred Scott” – the Supreme Court case that found enslaved African Americans could not claim citizenship and didn’t enjoy the rights ascribed by the Constitution.
This criticism of slavery’s perversions clouding constitutional judgment extended to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the country’s first Black justice, DeSantis contended. DeSantis took issue with Marshall’s criticism of the Framers on the grounds that “the government they devised was defective from the start.”
DeSantis wrote: “Such criticism misses the mark.”
A time capsule to the Affordable Care Act debate
At the time DeSantis published his book, few topics animated voters like the 2010 passage of Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
DeSantis accused the law’s champions of putting “America on a course to a government-run, single-payer system” – a warning that has yet to materialize, though several Democratic candidates for president ran on such a policy during the 2020 election.
DeSantis’ opposition to “ObamaCare” isn’t surprising on its face. As a lawmaker, he voted often with his Republican colleagues to repeal the Affordable Care Act and he was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, which helped orchestrate a federal government shutdown aimed at defunding the law. But unlike some Republicans, who at times voiced support for the law’s more popular provisions (like the requirement for insurance to cover children until age 26), DeSantis’ opposition appeared wholesale.
“Initially justified by Obama as a needed remedy for the problem of rising health care costs that hurt members of the middle class, the post-passage euphoria revealed a different, more controversial justification for a federal overhaul of the health care system: the redistribution of wealth,” DeSantis wrote.
Even the requirement for insurance companies to cover adults and children with pre-existing conditions appeared problematic to DeSantis because it could lead to higher insurance costs.
“Though this sounded noble, the law had the effect of undermining insurance coverage for children,” DeSantis contended. “By mandating that insurers take on more risk than is economically justifiable, ObamaCare forced insurers either to absorb financial losses or else increase premiums for all policies.”
Can DeSantis match his goal posts?
DeSantis in his book laid out a blueprint for leadership that is rigidly confined to a strict reading of the Constitution and adherence to “fundamental law with stable meaning.” This includes limitations on the executive branch’s abilities and a rigorous adherence to separation of powers.
As governor, DeSantis has at times flouted seemingly similar constraints on executive power that he often charged Obama with crossing in his book. For example, he accused Obama’s then-health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, of using “her power to intimidate private businesses for engaging in speech she didn’t like. This illustrates the progressive impulse to centralize authority in bureaucratic arrangements at its apogee.” But as governor, DeSantis issued an eerily similar warning to businesses not to get in his way, or else.
“If you are in one of these corporations, if you’re a woke CEO, you want to get involved in our legislative business, look, it’s a free country,” DeSantis said in 2021. “But understand, if you do that, I’m fighting back against you. And I’m going to make sure that people understand your business practices, and anything I don’t like about what you’re doing.”
It’s a lesson Disney certainly learned. After Disney opposed a state measure restricting certain classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity, DeSantis went after the company’s special taxing authority. Earlier this month, state lawmakers voted to give DeSantis new powers over the government that controls the land around Disney’s Orlando-area theme parks.
This orthodoxy, though, is also built on a belief that the federal government’s powers are far more limited than what is delegated to the states. Does this mean that DeSantis would chart a new path as president, were he to ascend to the highest office? Or does he believe that the “transformational” presidency he so maligned has changed the office for good in ways that he intends to follow. Maybe his next book will hold some of these answers.