Ron DeSantis finally made his big announcement about running for the Republican nomination for president and the reviews about his launch were decidedly negative. As Susan Glasser writes, apart from the technical glitches which plagued the process that he chose to do on Twitter along with Elon Musk, DeSantis did not even give a clear indication of what he was hooping to achieve as president.
The start of the Twitter Spaces event featuring DeSantis and Twitter’s billionaire owner, Elon Musk, was delayed by more than twenty-five minutes while Musk audibly struggled to get his new platform to work. But just as wretched was what DeSantis had to say once he started talking, both on Twitter and in a subsequent interview on Fox News, which boiled down to a lot of complaints about the “legacy media” and little rationale for his candidacy.
The really vital question posed by DeSantis’s official entry into the 2024 race was not, after all, whether Twitter could handle a large crowd in its Spaces feature without crashing. (Answer: no.) It was whether DeSantis could revive his Presidential prospects and actually emerge as the Republican to take out Trump.
After DeSantis’s nineteen-point reëlection victory, last November, he looked to be the Republican Trump-beater at last, a younger, sharper, smarter version of the forty-fifth President—without the nasty Twitter habit and all the legal troubles. Subsequent exposure suggests he’s also Trump without the charm. In recent months, DeSantis has been sinking rather than surging in the polls, as his many missteps, from thuggishly retaliating against Disney to signing an unpopular six-week abortion ban into law, have given Trump and his allies much to feast upon. DeSantis doesn’t look like so much of a Trump-beater anymore. The ex-President, whose lead in the G.O.P. primary is back up into double digits over DeSantis, remains an overwhelming front-runner. DeSantis, meanwhile, will go into the history books for one of the worst and least competent campaign launches ever. Ouch.
As I have said many time before, I think that DeSantis has misjudged the moment. By entering the race now, he is necessarily going to be involved in a bare-knuckle fight with serial sex abuser Trump (SSAT). He simply cannot avoid it because SSAT has already started to savage him and if he does not respond in kind, he will look like a wimp in the machismo-adoring world of Republican primary politics. SSAT has already accused of DeSantis of crying and begging him for his support when he ran for governor in 2016. But if DeSantis retaliates against SSAT in kind (as he has tentatively started to do already), he risks losing SSAT loyalists who seem to make up a significant portion of the base of the party. If SSAT’s campaign implodes for whatever reason, which has to be DeSantis’s best hope, it is not clear if they will swing over to DeSantis, given the perception that he has been disloyal and ungrateful to their dear leader. My feeling is that DeSantis would have been much better served to spend this cycle supporting SSAT and that would have positioned him perfectly to be the heir to SSAT in 2028. Now he has to brace himself for SSAT’s attacks on him that promise to be vicious.
My calculation about DeSantis’s best option is, I think, fairly obvious. It also applies to all the other Republicans running in 2024 but their goals might be different. People like Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, and Asa Hutchinson may be using the 2024 primary race as stepping stones to 2028 by creating name-recognition. They likely know they cannot win this time but by avoiding attacking Trump directly, they can raise their profiles in the hope of seeking to attract his followers in 2028 and perhaps even securing a vice-presidential spot.
DeSantis is in a different position. He already has national name-recognition. He clearly thinks he can win and thus cannot afford the rope-a-dope option that the others have, of bobbing and weaving to avoid SSAT’s attacks without retaliating, except obliquely. He has to attack the front-runner directly and hope to win, because losing would be highly damaging, both now and for 2028.
In comments on an earlier post, Raging Bee thinks that DeSantis might have appeal to the party base as someone who will actually carry out SSAT’s agenda without all the nasty baggage. But I think that SSAT’s appeal to the party base is his very boorishness. His calling Stormy Daniels ‘horsey face’ is really childish and one would think it would be offensive to women but his followers seem to love it. But in Daniels he seems to have met someone who is not afraid to give as good as she gets. In response to his jibe at her looks, she shot back at him and his supporters by making a jibe about the size of his penis.
True. He used a 3 inch one. https://t.co/X3YvAu6jID
— Stormy Daniels (@StormyDaniels) March 26, 2023
But DeSantis cannot do something similar without enraging the Republican base. This leaves him vulnerable to a mauling from SSAT who likes nothing better than to insult and demean his rivals. That was his path to the 2016 nomination, ridiculing his competitors with insults and driving them out. They were either reluctant or unable to get into the mud and fight back with similar tactics. Furthermore, if by some miracle DeSantis defeats SSAT, you can expect the latter to do everything he can to make sure that DeSantis loses in the general election just so that he can claim that he would have won if he had won the nomination. Party loyalty means nothing to SSAT, only his own ego and interests matter.
So why did DeSantis decide that this was a good time? I think that his surprisingly easy re-election win for governor in 2020 went to his head. He won by a whopping 19 points in an election cycle when Republicans did badly around the nation. He must have thought that this showed that his time had come and that he could ride the tide by exporting the anti-woke platform that led to his success in Florida to the rest of the nation. As Glasser wrote:
“Make America Florida” might as well be the unofficial slogan of DeSantis’s campaign. When asked on Fox why he was running for President, DeSantis said that he wanted to bring his “unprecedented policy success” in the state to the national stage, and this, he promised, was a way to end the “culture of losing” that plagued Republicans during the tenure of the guy DeSantis refused to criticize by name.
But that is just one miscalculation. The anomalous results in Florida may not be aa sign of his great appeal but instead that Florida is a deeply weird state, and not a microcosm of the nation. What plays well there may not succeed elsewhere.
DeSantis is a product of elite educational institutions, having been an undergraduate at Yale and then going to Harvard law school. Maybe his decision to run this time was triggered by the famous speech in Act IV, Scene III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar where Brutus is urging Cassius that their combined forces should march on Philippi to meet the forces Octavius and Anthony in the struggle for power in Rome, saying that the time is right to do so, and failing to grasp the moment will result in defeat.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
Brutus misjudged the tide and he and Cassius were defeated and died. Many people have, like Brutus, misjudged the moment and used the heady experience of their immediate success to over-reach in their ambitions. And I think that that may end up as DeSantis’s fate too, and that he will ‘lose his ventures’.
As an aside, I came across this story about a ‘fierce beast’ that was reported in Florida that sent two people to the emergency room in separate attacks. It appears to be just a feral cat with an attitude. That might be a good metaphor for DeSantis, someone who appears to be more of a threat than he actually is.