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Why I'm Not Sold On Ron DeSantis
Not only does the Florida governor lack the personality for a successful presidential run, but he's needlessly poked the GOP's biggest bear -- Donald Trump.
I’m Michael A. Cohen, and this is Truth and Consequences: A no-holds-barred look at the absurdities, hypocrisies, and surreality of American politics. If you received this email - or you are a free subscriber - and you’d like to subscribe: you can sign up below.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column for MSNBC on why Ron DeSantis is the most dangerous political figure in America because, unlike the other frontrunner for that award, he’s demonstrated the “ability to translate political vindictiveness, cruelty, and demagoguery into policy results.”
While I’m all in on DeSantis’s venality and cynicism, I’m less convinced about his current status as a 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner. The first and most obvious problem for the Florida governor is that he’s a smug and charmless jerk — and smug and charmless jerks who struggle to cover up the fact that they are smug and charmless jerks don’t usually get elected president.
Here is a choice example of DeSantis acting poorly: this past March when he upbraided children for wearing masks at a public event:
Now granted, DeSantis would not be the first smug and charmless jerk to run for public office — or get elected. But most politicians with such attributes are usually pretty good at keeping it under wraps. Richard Nixon is probably the best example: the contrast between his public demeanor and the small, coarse, vindictive, and profoundly resentful man featured on hours of secretly recorded White House tapes is sharp. As the video above suggests, DeSantis struggles to keep his inner hater under wraps.
The other problem for DeSantis is that his policy agenda befits a smug and charmless jerk. Over the past two years, working closely with Republicans in the Florida state legislature, DeSantis has signed a host of mean-spirited and quasi-authoritarian laws. This has included attacking LGBTQ Floridians, undoing a voter-passed constitutional amendment restoring felon voting rights, enacting new voting restrictions, preventing discussions of racism in the state’s schools, and limiting the ability of state residents to engage in political protests. He’s even gone to war against Disney for speaking out on behalf of gay and trans rights. He signed legislation earlier this year, stripping the company of its special tax status, and just this week, called the company, the largest private employer in Florida, an ally of the Chinese Communist Party.
DeSantis's entire shtick is cultivating an image as the country's angriest, pettiest, and most vindictive cultural warrior. Indeed, DeSantis not only didn’t apologize for upbraiding those mask-wearing high school students; he tried to raise money off the incident. “Predictably, the leftist propagandists in our media had a meltdown and called me a ‘bully’ for allowing children to breathe fresh air,” he told supporters in a fundraising pitch.
That might be a winning strategy in a Republican presidential primary, but it will almost certainly limit DeSantis’s appeal in a general election. It’s one thing to run to the right in a primary campaign; it’s another to ostentatiously go out of your way to alienate half the country. If DeSantis is the 2024 Republican nominee, he will need to pivot toward being a nicer person in an election campaign in which not just Republicans are casting ballots. This might be a challenge for DeSantis since it’s far from clear that he can be a nice person.
One anecdote from a 2021 Politico profile of DeSantis stands out in describing his personality shortcomings, “You will be in the car with Ron DeSantis, and he’ll say nothing to you for an hour. He would prefer it that way.” Those around him report that he loathes small talk, hates interacting with voters, and even dislikes Christmas parties. In short, he’s not much of a people person. That’s a tough m.o for a politician who wants to be president. Plenty of politicians have figured out how to fake empathy and interest. That DeSantis, who has held elected office for 9.5 years, still hasn’t figured out how to mimic such attributes is a worrisome sign for his political aspirations.
Jonathan Chait, who has, written extensively about the Florida governor, describes the dilemma well:
DeSantis has the anti-tax zealotry of Paul Ryan without the winsome affect and sculpted torso. He has the social conservatism of George W. Bush with none of the folksiness. He has the partisan fire of Newt Gingrich without the mesmerizing hair. He speaks in a nasal tone nobody has described as pleasant on the ears and has yet to utter an eloquent or memorable turn of phrase.
Of course, there’s an obvious counter to such criticism — Donald Trump is not exactly the world’s nicest or most empathetic guy. But many Americans (as crazy as it might seem) think Trump is charming and charismatic. DeSantis, not so much.
But maybe none of this matters. As long as DeSantis can win a Republican presidential primary, he will go into a general election with strong Republican support, facing off against an unpopular incumbent president, bolstered by the GOP’s significant advantage in the Electoral College. The latter could possibly allow him to lose the popular vote and still win the White House. But even in an era of intense political polarization, personality matters. Presidential candidates still need to be appealing figures. They need to persuade some segment of the electorate not necessarily inclined to vote for them to cast a ballot in their favor. Biden, Obama, Bush, Clinton, and even Trump had those skills. It’s far from clear that DeSantis possesses them.
Poking The Bear
Still, whatever his personal attributes, DeSantis has emerged as a potential frontrunner in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. In state polls from New Hampshire to Michigan to Florida, he is besting or running competitively against Trump among Republican voters.
Also, unlike most GOP presidential wannabes, the Florida governor has willingly stuck his head out of the proverbial political foxhole. While South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, both Florida Senators (Marco Rubio and Rick Scott), Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott have publicly stated they will sit out the presidential sweepstakes in 2024 if Trump runs, DeSantis is refusing to make the same pledge. He has barnstormed the GOP donor circuit, which has helped him amass a more than $100 million war chest. And he has pushed legislation guaranteed to get national conservative media coverage. Everything DeSantis is doing suggests his focus is as much on the presidential race coming up in two years than even his reelection in three months (which he is expected to win).
However, that DeSantis is even in a position to run for a second term as governor is largely because of Trump’s 2018 endorsement. DeSantis was a little-known North Florida congressman polling badly in the governor’s race until Trump’s nod boosted him to victory. So it is rather striking that DeSantis has not sought the former president’s endorsement for this campaign. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that DeSantis is seeking to carve out a political identity separate from that of Trump. Indeed, it’s so obvious that even the former president has figured it out.
There have already been several off-the-record stories about Trump’s growing annoyance with his former quasi-protege (DeSantis ran an ad in 2018 in which he read to his young daughter from Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal”). Trump has not forgotten that his support in 2018 for DeSantis was crucial. He recently told New York magazine, “I endorsed Ron, he was at 3, and as soon as I endorsed him, he went to first place, he was not gonna win.”
Trump appears particularly annoyed about DeSantis’s refusal to say he won’t run in 2024 and, according to the New York Times Maggie Haberman, “Trump has been telling a range of aides a version of, he isn't getting the deference from DeSantis that he wants in the pre-2024 leadup." Reportedly, he’s also told aides he’s not worried about the Florida governor because he “has no personal charisma and has a dull personality.” But whatever Trump’s views about DeSantis’s political capabilities, the former president is, above all else, a man who seeks constant validation and veneration. DeSantis refuses to provide such adoration and, in the process, is needlessly poking the bear.
After all, whatever one might think of DeSantis’s recent political rise, the 2024 Republican nomination is likely Donald Trump’s to lose. He is still the frontrunner in national polls of Republican voters (in head-to-head polls against DeSantis, Trump is regularly ahead by 30 points). And it’s not the Florida governor to whom Republicans across the country are prostrating themselves — it’s Trump.
The more that DeSantis becomes the leading rival to Trump, the more he raises the former president’s ire, and the more it increases the likelihood that Trump will, at some point, turn his rhetorical guns on him. I don’t care how well DeSantis is doing in the polls right now: he doesn’t have the support within the party, or the political skills, to withstand the kind of onslaught that we saw Trump unload on Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and a host of others in 2016. And if DeSantis survives Trump’s attacks and bests him in the GOP primaries, does anyone expect Trump to play the role of loyal Republican soldier, endorse DeSantis, and support him in a campaign against Biden? If anything, the opposite could occur. It would hardly be a surprise if Trump did everything he could to destroy DeSantis, even if that means Biden gets reelected.
If Trump is to falter in 2024, it will not come from a frontal attack by a candidate like DeSantis. Instead, it’ll come from a Squid Game-like war of attrition in which Trump and his earliest rivals destroy themselves, leaving another candidate to emerge (likely one who has never wavered in their loyalty to Trump). Of course, DeSantis may have a better grasp of party opinion than Trump. Maybe Republicans are tired of Trump and will rally around another candidate they think has the best chance of beating Biden. By presenting himself as a Trump-like figure without the same baggage, maybe DeSantis can best the former president. But color me skeptical. Trump is not only the most influential figure in the Republican Party; he’s a thin-skinned narcissist who will take out his vengeance on anyone who crosses him. DeSantis appears to be the most likely person to face his immediate wrath. Moreover, DeSantis is potentially staking his claim in a race he is more likely to lose than to win.
Rather than leaving the 2024 campaign to Trump and focusing on 2028 when, more likely than not, Trump won’t run, and Republicans will have the political advantage (it’s hard for any party to win three straight presidential elections), DeSantis thinks now is his time. That decision could come back to haunt him … if his sparkling personality doesn’t upend him first.
What’s Going On
Ron Brownstein is skeptical that Latino voters are realigning to the Republican Party.
Republicans were freaking out over JD Vance’s lackluster Senate campaign .. and now he’s once again said something stupid on tape. This time he was caught saying women in violent marriages should stay in them for the sake of the kids. So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that even though he’s favored to beat Democrat Tim Ryan in November, most of the recent polling from the race has him behind.
It seems increasingly clear that if Donald Trump gets indicted for trying to overturn the 2020 election, it’ll happen first in Georgia.
Then again …
The party of freedom wants to make it a crime in South Carolina to publish information that tells people who to get an abortion.
Fascinating LA Times piece on a massive Brinks truck robbery.
Michelle Goldberg has some thoughts on the myth of the “Good Trump Official.”
Great piece by Eric Segall on Clarence Thomas’s judicial hypocrisy.
Reach out to your old friends!