By Karol Markowicz for RealClearPolitics

Florida is having a unique moment. For nearly two years, since the moment Gov. Ron DeSantis reopened beaches, schools, and businesses, all eyes have been on the Sunshine State. No other state has faced similar scrutiny. No other politician has been similarly dissected.

DeSantis was right and other governors were wrong. We could not hide from COVID. We could not pause living because of COVID. It was freedom he was championing, yes. But it was also life. The acceptance of that rightness, even acknowledging it, has been reluctant at best. Even as other states followed Florida’s lead, in similar or worse COVID circumstances, recognition of DeSantis being correct all along has been hard to find.

The governor of Florida made tough decisions in opposition to common thinking. In our era of conformity, this was not an easy call. His policies exposed how other states deeply hurt themselves and damaged their residents, children in particular, for no reason at all.

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His rightness has led to something else: DeSantis is nearly the entire conversation regarding the Republican nomination in 2024. Donald Trump is still a factor, of course, but those on the left imagine that they have already found a proven way to defeat him. Ron DeSantis will be harder to stop.

The main attempt so far had been labeling DeSantis “Trump 2.0” as The Week did in February, Salon did two weeks ago, and the New York Times, always a late adopter, did a few days ago. This is unlikely to work. It’s not that the two men don’t have similarities. They both use their hands when they speak, they both feel comfortable battling the media, and they’re both residents of Florida – disqualifying the idea that DeSantis would settle for being Trump’s running mate.

Among the many things that make them different is that DeSantis is famously involved in the minutiae of governing while Trump is more of a big picture guy. When DeSantis talks about why he lifted the restrictions in Florida, he explains that he looked at the data, looked at the science, and reached his conclusions. It was not for acclaim. He did the right thing for his citizens.

This week, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law. The bill had caused a national stir after passing Florida’s House and Senate.

The bill reads “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

As far as laws go, this one should not have been controversial.

In normal times, the fact that a law is necessary at all to prohibit teachers delving into sexual orientation or gender identity to kids as young as five years old would have been the story. But these are not normal times and Florida is not your typical state.

Its opponents pejoratively, and inaccurately, labeled it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Any reading of the legislation will show it does nothing to prohibit anyone saying “gay,” and yet leftist activists and their celebrity helpers began saying “gay” on repeat, and taking out billboards with the word splayed across it, as if it did.

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The reason is obvious: It’s not about the new law, which DeSantis signed Monday. It’s about an attempt to cripple a potential 2024 Republican candidate with charges of homophobia or worse. The law enjoys widespread support. So wide, in fact, that Florida Democratic primary voters support it by a measure of 52% to 36%.

The story told in the Florida and national press paints a picture of a Gov. DeSantis alone on an island pushing out unpopular positions. As Florida’s Sun Sentinel newspaper titled it, “Normally a master of messaging, Ron DeSantis was outmaneuvered by the three-word catchphrase ‘Don’t Say Gay.’”

The joke here is that it was the media running with the activist slogan and still the governor managed to outmaneuver them in the world of public opinion.

It’s not hard to understand why. Gender and sex indoctrination is something that is absolutely happening on an ever-younger level. Parents post lessons to Twitter that show first graders learning about being neither gender – or both. This isn’t a made-up controversy. This is happening in schools across the country. Parents are rightly concerned. With the bill, DeSantis is answering that concern.

One of the more telling moments of the controversy over the law was when the Walt Disney Company was pressured to step in. “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in a statement on March 11. “I am sorry.”

That Disney would take the side of encouraging the teaching of sexual orientation or gender to small children didn’t exactly fit with the brand. And DeSantis didn’t back down. “In Florida, our policies got to be based on the best interest of Florida citizens, not on the musing of woke corporations,” he said.

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Floridians largely understood that the tumult wasn’t about the bill, or Disney, or even their governor. It was about the 2024 presidential contest and the race to pin something to Ron DeSantis that will stick. They also appreciate, as National Review editor Rich Lowry described it, the governor’s “complete intolerance for playing along with false media narratives.”

DeSantis brushes off this criticism, which is unusual in the world of politicians who fear bad press and don’t want to risk angering the businesses in their states. He shrugs and moves along. They can talk all they like, he’ll do what he wants. It’s a free country. Especially in Florida.

Syndicated with permission from Real Clear Wire.

Karol Markowicz is a weekly columnist at the New York Post, a contributor at Spectator USA, and a contributing writer at the Washington Examiner.

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