On live television last week, Rep. Ron DeSantis insinuated that cancer patients could get the care they needed at their local emergency rooms. A bad gaffe normally, during the current healthcare debate it metastasized quickly. By the weekend, many constituents were rejecting him like a bad bone marrow transplant.
At town halls inside Florida's sixth congressional district, diabetics, breast cancer survivors, and the father-in-law of a heart transplant recipient ask the Republican why he wants to repeal Obamacare and send them to the ER. Each time, DeSantis takes it on the chin.
Guzzling iced-tea as his car zips through the Florida heat en-route to the day's final event, DeSantis reconsiders the CNN answer. "I should've done that question differently, for sure," he says between sips. But for a man recently jeered so ruthlessly, DeSantis seems weirdly calm. Perhaps, it's because he understands none of this is normal.
The extraordinary pressure comes from the fact that DeSantis is one of roughly 40 Freedom Caucus members threatening Speaker Ryan's repeal and replacement plan. Conservatives worry the bill doesn't do away with enough of Obamacare while liberals complain that it cuts too much.
But DeSantis believes there's no lack of healthcare in America, hence his statement about showing up at an ER and receiving treatment. The real challenges are accessibility and affordability, he says, problems neither Obamacare or the current Republican replacement solve. The former is "in a slow motion death spiral," he explains while the latter amounts to little more than "a half-measure." In general, the sunshine state congressman exudes pessimism.
Pointing to the collapsing insurance exchanges, he asks, "how can you look at someone who's really happy with their Obamacare coverage and promise it'll be there three years from now." On the other hand, he's not certain the GOP alternative "would serve to reduce cost, which is what we promised." And so, DeSantis sits on the fence, demanding repeal while criticizing the current replacement. The protestors who turn out aren't convinced.
Most are members of Indivisible Florida, a group that borrows Tea Party tactics for opposite ends. Many carry homemade signs, bring pre-fabricated questions, and seem genuinely grateful for a chance to talk.
At the St. Augustine town hall, Carol Scott, a 62-year-old retired elementary teacher, says she's "delighted DeSantis provided this opportunity." Farther south near Daytona Beach, Deanna Becker, a 64-year-old retiree, gives "him a lot of credit for coming out." But that's before the event. Once questions start, they get loud.
A big guy with a deep voice, DeSantis remains poised in front of each crowd. That doesn't mean he's always heard. Several times even his microphone can't make his words audible above the hysteria. Often a competing chorus of boos and applause cut his answers in half. More than once the congressman plays referee, calling out troublemakers and breaking up shouting matches between supporters and protestors.
If these forums are what Democracy looks like, they certainly don't foster much dialogue. After the second town hall, even DeSantis admits as much. But he doesn't mind the heckling and screaming in front of cameras. It's part of the job and he encourages any of his House colleagues who chicken out to "show some backbone." That confidence is warranted.
None of his Democrat challengers have come close to defeating him. He's thrashed each by no less than 15 points. Any threat to the conservative comes from the right, not the left. Last week, President Trump has threatened to primary wayward Republicans who buck the party line on healthcare.
Any pressure from the administration hasn't influenced DeSantis' thinking though. He says negotiations between Freedom Caucus brass and the White House have been productive. And like Trump, DeSantis wants to make the best deal possible under the current political circumstances. "If you could confidently predict downward pressure on prices with the reforms in this bill," he explains, "then on the right, I think a lot of voters would be fine with it."
But he balks at characterizations of the Obamacare overhaul as a Republican promise kept.
He adds that, conservatives "can't go out there and just tell people that costs will go down." And rightly so. DeSantis didn't win his seat by telling voters he would revive and refurbish the government program. Like every other conservative, the Florida congressman pledged to remove the growth from the healthcare system.
While DeSantis remains open to adjusting that prescription slightly, he warns that any half-measures will incur significant side effects. "My big worry is that a lot of Republican voters will say, 'well you ran on full repeal and now there are all these problems,'" DeSantis says, "and we'll be left there, just pointing at the remnants of Obamacare." That fear is not unfounded.
At the final stop in Mt. Dora, three high school kids show up wearing flip-flops, tank tops, and Ray-Bans. When geriatric protestors jeer, they're the ones cheering. The oldest, 17-year-old Duncan DeMarsh, says afterwards that they skipped a day of spring break on the beach for a town hall in a stuffy school gymnasium. They like DeSantis, don't care for GOP leadership, and say keeping the health law "would be a letdown, honestly."
Still with their Gadsden flag and trollish demeanor, politics seems more like an afterschool activity for these kids. After all while they don't like Obamacare, they've certainly never paid an insurance premium. They just don't seem that serious until DeMarsh says with complete seriousness that if Obamacare's not fully repealed, then "well, we'd all feel betrayed."
And that's the bottom line from a kid who isn't old enough to vote. That's the one takeaway after DeSantis drives almost 150 miles, talks for more than four-and-a-half hours, and hosts three town halls.
No amount of explaining will bring Florida Democrats around to the GOP's healthcare plans. DeSantis has already become cancerous to the left. But if the congressman backs anything less than full repeal, conservatives won't ever listen to him again. He'd become toxic.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.