It’s never a good sign when political analysts are writing “What Went Wrong?” stories about your presidential campaign before it’s announced.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has endured more than his share of pre-mortems as the conventional wisdom has turned decisively against his imminent campaign and his standing has dropped into the teens and low 20s in recent national polls of the Republican primaries from above 30 percent in March.
Despite the increasingly loud chorus of doubters the last couple of months, though, the DeSantis bid still has the makings of a strong campaign. In the weeks ahead he could well change the narrative of the 2024 Republican nomination fight from “Trump is burying DeSantis” to “He’s still kicking despite Trump doing everything he can to bury him.”
He’ll be lavishly funded; his favorable ratings remain quite high among Republicans; he can draw a crowd; he’ll finally actually be in the race; and perhaps most importantly, it seems he has the correct theory of how to try to topple Trump.
We’ve gotten used to the idea of DeSantis running but it’s worth remembering how audacious his campaign is. He’s not in the same position as, say, Nikki Haley, who can duck Trump as much as possible, hope that lightning strikes for her and if it doesn’t, that maybe she’ll still be in Trump’s good graces if he’s the nominee.
This evasion isn’t available to DeSantis, whom Trump is already accusing of grooming teenage girls and of maybe being gay. DeSantis is signing up for the possibility of getting his reputation tarnished and his political career forever blighted. A friendly rapprochement is very unlikely at the end. If they do come to terms after a Trump victory, it will surely be humiliating to DeSantis — think of a defeated foreign king being paraded as one of the props in an ancient Roman triumph.
And he’s getting in when Trump is once again making his dominant position in the party unmistakable. Earlier this year, it looked as if the 800-pound gorilla had perhaps slimmed down to 400 or 500 pounds, but now he’s clearly back at his accustomed weight.
If Trump is clearly the odds-on favorite, though, it’s too early to declare him inevitable, and there is a big element of the party that is still open to someone else, at least in theory. How DeSantis campaigns will matter.
At the mechanical level, he’ll need to post a big fund-raising number out of the gate, continue to roll out endorsements by state officials (he’s had impressive hauls in Iowa and New Hampshire), and win the contest for the best talent among activists and organizers while building robust organizations in the early states.
None of that is easy, but, with significant backing from Republican donors, it’s doable.
More fundamentally, a presidential candidate needs a personal narrative that dovetails with his political message in a way that candidates for lesser offices simply don’t. Without one, they rarely succeed. Barack Obama was a groundbreaking African American candidate for a country that needed the audacity of hope. Donald Trump was the outsider billionaire for a country that needed to be made great again.
What is DeSantis? He has spent the last several months talking about his record in Florida more than about himself, which is admirable in a way — but policies don’t tell a story. At the moment, the average Republican knows little or nothing about his Yale baseball career, his military service during the war on terrorism, his wife’s fight against breast cancer or his life as a very busy father of three young children. In a recent trip through Iowa, his wife, Casey, talked in a more personal mode about their life together; there will have to be more of that.
Much has been made lately of DeSantis’s standoffishness. Even if this has been exaggerated, there’s no doubt that he isn’t a Bill Clinton-style politician who feeds off people. For him, retail politics is clearly work, and he needs to do it. His team now has him staying after events, to glad-hand. He’ll have to do it wherever he goes, without showing any boredom or irritation, lest he confirm the idea that he lacks a personal touch.
He’ll need to plant his feet firmly on tricky issues in a Republican primary: What does he think of the legitimacy of the 2020 election? Where he is now on entitlement reform? Perhaps his worst moment in the pre-announcement phase was his backtracking on a poorly drafted statement calling the Ukraine war “a territorial dispute,” which dismayed both G.O.P. supporters and opponents of large-scale aid to Ukraine.
Then, of course, there’s the big, looming question of how to respond to Trump’s attacks. Ignoring them, as DeSantis has mostly done this spring, seems weak; responding risks playing Trump’s game. No Republican has yet figured out this conundrum, with the exception of Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia.
When Trump put a bounty on Kemp’s head for the offense of defying him after the 2020 election, the governor responded deftly. He said that Trump had a beef with him, not the other way around, and when responding to Trump’s claims about the election, did it dispassionately and factually. He survived Trump’s onslaught, but had the advantage of fighting a proxy war in a primary battle on his home turf, rather than running directly against Trump himself.
DeSantis would do well to study the Kemp example; while it shows it’s possible to win against Trump, it also underlines that he has to be fought with care to avoid triggering a defensive reaction from his fans. DeSantis won’t and can’t make the totalist case against Trump as unfit to serve that “Never Trump” Republicans and the press might like to hear. But so it is.
Much of his anti-Trump case will be based on electability. There’s no doubt that Trump blew a winnable race in 2020 — DeSantis will need to say he really did lose — and had a large hand in the Republican Party’s disappointing midterm last year. In all likelihood, DeSantis would have a much easier time beating Biden than Trump would, based on the generational contrast alone. But there are limits to this argument. Trump is competitive with Biden in polling, and an electability message doesn’t usually move the type of self-identified “very conservative” primary voters DeSantis needs to pry from Trump.
The risk to DeSantis is that his candidacy takes on the feel of an establishment front-runner — lots of donor enthusiasm, an electability message — when he’s running from behind against an insurgent populist who happens to have once been president of the United States.
To counter that, DeSantis is obviously going to have to retain his hard edge on cultural issues. The continued fight against Disney, which has become a morass, may actually help him: With other candidates effectively taking the side of Disney out of principle or to score points against DeSantis, he can portray himself as the most committed warrior against woke corporations.
And he needs to attack Trump from the right, both on the former president’s past record (Anthony Fauci, criminal justice reform, not building the border wall) and on current disputes. Even though it causes agita among some of his big donors, the issue of abortion is a clear opening for DeSantis. Trump is foggy, while DeSantis just signed a six-week ban. He should make maximum use of this contrast, especially in Iowa where social-conservative voters are so important.
For all the talk of how DeSantis has modeled his combative political style on Trump, he’s a vastly different politician and character. His approach as a speaker and campaigner is conventional, whereas Trump is outlandish. DeSantis is highly professional, whereas even after being president of the United States for four years, Trump reeks of amateurism. All indications are that DeSantis is a dutiful family man, whereas Trump has been, at best, a playboy and a boor.
It may be that Republicans decide that they still want the show that only Trump can provide. If that’s the case, DeSantis and all the other non-Trump candidates will indeed be done. But he’s not dead yet.
Rich Lowry is the editor in chief of National Review.
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