DeSantis Is Ascendant and Cuomo Is Faltering

For both men, their political fortunes and the tests imposed by their parties seem disconnected from the central question of this moment: How did they govern through a challenging year?

By Lisa Lerer

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Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is a darling of the right-wing media, a staunch Trump conservative trying to position himself as the heir to the former president’s political brand. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York is a descendant of a liberal political dynasty, a Trump antagonist with his own, long-simmering presidential ambitions.

Both have been on the front lines of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. But recent twists in their political fortunes underscore how differently both parties are keeping score in this volatile moment. Democrats and Republicans aren’t just on different teams in this pandemic, they’re playing by different rules altogether.

Less than a year ago, Mr. Cuomo was a Democratic darling, heralded for his handling of the virus in a state that was hit hard by the pandemic. Celebrities declared themselves “Cuomosexuals,” his daily briefings became must-see TV and political wags murmured about a presidential bid. The International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences awarded him an Emmy for his 111 “masterful” coronavirus briefings. He published a memoir about his leadership, taking a victory lap with the race far from over.

There were no such accolades for Mr. DeSantis. Referred to as “DeathSantis” and mocked for allowing “Florida Morons” to pack state beaches, Mr. DeSantis faced national scorn for his resistance to shutdowns. Last fall, he lifted all restrictions, keeping schools open for in-person learning and forbidding local officials from shutting down businesses or fining people for not wearing masks.

“I see, in many parts of our country, a sad state of affairs: schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed,” Mr. DeSantis said, offering a rousing defense of his pandemic response at the opening of Florida’s legislative session this week. “While so many other states kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up.”

The same could be said about Mr. DeSantis’s political ambitions.

For Republicans, loyalty to the former president and his pet issues has become the ultimate litmus test. Mr. DeSantis checked all the boxes: fighting with the media, questioning scientific experts, embracing baseless claims of election fraud and railing against liberals.

Conservatives rewarded the governor for his fealty. His approval rating rose above water in recent weeks, with some polling of Republicans showing Mr. DeSantis with higher ratings than Mr. Trump. He finished first in a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend covering a field of potential presidential candidates that did not include Mr. Trump, fueling chatter about a 2024 bid.

The Democratic Party has embraced a very different kind of political standard, one based not on allegiance to President Biden but ideological and cultural purity. Throughout the Trump era, Democrats equated politics with morality as a way to attack a Republican president who trafficked in racist and sexist attacks. They cast themselves as the party of #MeToo accountability, pressuring those in their ranks accused of sexual misconduct to step down.

That’s left Democrats facing charges of hypocrisy when it comes to Mr. Cuomo, who is now accused of sexually harassing several younger women. While Mr. Cuomo has few defenders, many powerful New York Democrats, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are pushing for an independent investigation rather than an immediate resignation. The allegations have left his party divided between those who believe he must leave office and others who worry that the party is eating its own by cleaving to a standard Republicans largely ignore.

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