It was about a year ago when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what critics labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law. To hear the Republican governor tell it, the measure was a modest education reform.
It was far more than that. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explained as the proposal worked its way through the GOP-led state legislature, the proposal “uses intentionally vague language to outlaw a huge amount of speech about LGBTQ people, families, and issues — not just sex — in every grade.”
Late last week, on the heels of Nikki Haley launching her presidential campaign, the South Carolina Republican made clear that she wasn’t impressed with the Floridian’s policy — not because it was an example of the government trying to stifle speech in educational settings in order to punish the LGBTQ community, but because Haley saw it as too timid. The Hill reported:
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) on Thursday criticized the so-called Don’t Say Gay measure signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last year, saying it doesn’t go “far enough.” ... “Basically, what it said was you shouldn’t be able to talk about gender before third grade,” Haley said at a town hall in Exeter, N.H., according to Fox News. “I’m sorry, I don’t think that goes far enough.”
There’s no great mystery as to the political motivations behind such rhetoric: DeSantis is widely seen as a likely presidential candidate, and Haley is taking early steps to position herself as a stronger candidate. The South Carolinian is basically telling GOP primary voters not to be too impressed by the Floridian’s notorious anti-LGBTQ measure — because she’d go in an even more reactionary direction.
What we’re witnessing, in other words, is one of the earliest signs of an inescapable race to the bottom: the process through which ambitious Republicans scramble to appear even more radical than their radical rivals, hoping to impress the GOP base by staking out new positions based on the idea that far-right ideas simply aren’t far enough to the right.
Haley offered a classic example of the phenomenon, but she has some company. Donald Trump, for example, has recently begun going after DeSantis on vaccines. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another possible 2024 contender, is among a small group of Republicans who’s seeking a review of an Advanced Placement African American studies course — on the heels of Florida picking a related fight.
As for where to find the floor in the race to the bottom, that’s the worst part: There is no bottom. In the coming months, national GOP candidates will keep staking out far-right positions, only to soon after see rivals complain that those positions are too moderate.