Ron DeSantis started the year a rising star and six months later is a bumbling idiot.
Or so you’d believe given his press clippings recently. There’s suffering a downdraft in your media coverage, and then there’s free-falling from 30,000 feet.
If you were only going off the tenor of the coverage lately, you’d think the true story of the 2022 election in Florida was that a man incapable of normal human interactions, with awful political instincts and a terrifying agenda, somehow lucked into winning a former swing state by 20 points.
There’s no doubt that DeSantis has had a tough couple of months, especially in the national polling, but the idea that he’s a weirdo and incompetent who has no possible national future is an example of conventional wisdom running out of control and distorting reality.
DeSantis is the same guy he was back in January, perhaps over-estimated then, and certainly under-estimated now.
It’s worth remembering that the worst thing that happened to DeSantis over the last several months is that former President Donald Trump got indicted, something the governor presumably — like every other Republican in the country hoping Trump doesn’t get the nomination — dreaded as likely to significantly boost the former president’s political fortunes. Sure enough, it was an inflection point in the early going. Afterward, Trump began routinely popping above 50 in many national surveys.
This is Alvin Bragg’s doing, not the governor’s. The indictment didn’t make DeSantis a worse politician, but, since the media often takes its cues from the polls, it created the predicate for overwhelmingly negative coverage.
There’s been much second-guessing about the timing of the launch of his campaign. It’s true that Trump has stolen a march on DeSantis while the Florida governor was the Schrödinger’s Cat of presidential candidates. But announcing immediately after his reelection would have had downsides, too. How would it have looked if the newly reelected governor hadn’t even paused to see through the spring legislative session before decamping for Iowa and New Hampshire?
And then, there’s the matter of preparation. A real presidential run is a massive undertaking. We will have to see how well-prepared the DeSantis team is as his campaign gets formally underway. It’s doubtful, though, that they would have been ready — certainly, not as ready — in, say, February. If he’d made avoidable errors after a rapid announcement, some of the same people saying he’s botched it by waiting would be saying he botched it by rushing.
Meanwhile, the Florida governor’s prospects in a general election, one of his chief calling cards, have supposedly been blighted by his signing of a six-week abortion ban. The legislation has exceptions for victims of rape, incest and human trafficking, and for the life and health of the mother. It also provides funding to support pregnant women and young mothers. Would a federal version of this measure go way beyond what is politically defensible at the moment? Yes. But DeSantis hasn’t said he’s going to go there, and none of the people saying how terrible this is for DeSantis pause to think that perhaps President Joe Biden’s support for federal legislation to wipe away nearly every restriction on abortion in the states could be its own political problem.
The governor’s supposed lack of relatability has also become a major focus. It’s true that he’s not a natural glad-hander. But his every interaction with people is now scrutinized, zapruder-like, for signs of a damning awkwardness. In one clip circulating on Twitter, he rubs his mouth and nose and immediately afterwards slaps someone’s back. You wouldn’t do it at a dinner party, but standards of comportment aren’t the same on the campaign trail as at, say, Michael’s. We’ve gone from the criticism that he doesn’t slap backs to he slaps backs in the wrong way.
Another clip of him cheerfully greeting patrons at a New Hampshire diner is supposedly evidence that he’ll never make it because after he asks one diner’s name, he merely says, “Ok!” He’s now apparently expected not just to say “hello,” but engage in soulful conversation and witty repartee in crowded places.
If DeSantis has slid markedly in the national polls and had some genuine embarrassments in recent months — a botched Ukraine statement, the Disney fight dragging on — the overwhelming negativity toward him in the press says more about the media than it does about him. Its herd mentality means that once a narrative has set in, everyone tends to double down and feed into it more. So we get the consensus that DeSantis is very bad at doing the thing — running for president — that he hasn’t formally done yet.
His strengths are being played down, when they aren’t completely ignored.
His truly accomplished Florida tenure is being discounted, both under the “the 80 degrees and sunny” argument advanced by Trump — i.e. Florida would be successful no matter what — and because his extensive string of legislatives victories became a blur and kind of boring.
It’s as if DeSantis is Chauncey Gardener and simply happened by chance to win a contested primary and extremely hard-fought general election in 2018, become a popular governor, handle Covid in an independent-minded way that, as far as Republicans are concerned, has been completely vindicated, forge a smashing reelection victory, generate massive national buzz, successfully woo an impressive array of GOP donors and pass a historic raft of conservative legislation.
This happens to random schmucks all the time, right?
In terms of the 2024 race, DeSantis is polling better in the early states than he is nationally. If he can pull off a win in Iowa, which will be a major focus of his campaign, his chances of taking down Trump obviously increase markedly.
There’s been attention on a few donors expressing doubts about DeSantis and disappointment over his abortion ban, but he still has broad and apparently deep support among the party’s big givers.
He’s won significant endorsements the last couple of weeks, including an eye-popping 37 state legislators in Iowa. They presumably wouldn’t be lending their personal support to someone they believe has already been all-but-eliminated from the competition. The endorsements also show that DeSantis is willing to put in the time and effort to win over individuals to his side and that he’s learning. It was a fiasco when he neglected relationships with members of the Florida congressional delegation and Trump swooped in and won a clutch of endorsements.
Maybe he never will become as competitive with Trump as seemed likely a few months ago, or that the race evolves in some totally unexpected direction.
It’s axiomatic among seasoned baseball fans that if your team falls behind early on to an opponent off to a sizzling start, there’s nothing to worry about. Either the opponent keeps playing at a mind-boggling pace, in which case there’s no stopping them regardless, or the opponent cools off and comes back to earth.
By the same token, if Trump is going to stay at 50 percent, and if a majority of Republicans are committed to him either because of his persona or because they recoil at attacks on him from the other side, it doesn’t matter what DeSantis says or does — the Trump Train is going to rumble out of the station one more time, to destinations unknown.
That’s entirely possible. But it won’t be because DeSantis was a fool on a fool’s errand.
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