At first, it looked as if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was positioning himself to be “Donald Trump without the baggage.”
After all, Trump was popular with Republicans and the political right because of his record and rhetoric on immigration, taxes, the appointment of conservative judges, and his cultural and economic agendas.
The former president’s main problem was — and is — that just enough suburban, swing voters found the former president so personally offensive in 2020 that they handed the White House to Democrat Joe Biden. Those crucial voters didn’t like Trump’s name calling, personal attacks, and inability to tell the truth — and they still don’t.
Given that, the theory was that DeSantis could win both the GOP presidential nomination and the 2024 general election by echoing Trump’s priorities and policies while avoiding the nastiness and pettiness that so often defined the former president.
But of late, DeSantis has been on a baggage-grabbing spree, looking for almost any opportunity to wrestle with corporate America and alienate swing voters who live in the suburbs. He’s collecting the same negatives that Trump did, and he is exhibiting the same boorishness as the former president.
Instead of being a more personable, serious, thoughtful, and honest version of Trump, the Florida governor is emulating him. DeSantis always appears to be looking for a fight and generally acts like an egomaniac.
Mind you, I’m not all that surprised that DeSantis is Trump-like. When I interviewed him during his run for Congress, he struck me as a bulvan. (It’s Yiddish. Go look it up.)
He (and/or his consultants) appear to want to polarize every issue. That’s exactly what DeSantis is doing with Disney, one of the most well-respected companies on the planet.
Battling Mickey Mouse
Normally, governors want their largest corporations to be successful so they can raise wages, hire more people, and pay their state taxes, which in the case of Disney are considerable.
But DeSantis is so interested in showing how tough and successful he is that he’s willing to look like a bully protecting his turf – even if it means beating up on Mickey Mouse.
I interviewed thousands of candidates for the House, Senate and governor, and DeSantis certainly ranks as one of my least favorite, along with then-Democrat (now Trumper) Peter Navarro, who was running for the House from Southern California, and Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz.
My reaction to candidates like these had nothing to do with their parties, ideologies, or issue positions. They were simply unpleasant people who oozed arrogance. They wanted to show how smart they were. And that meant that they wanted to argue.
Of course, plenty of odious candidates have been elected to office, and I’m sure many more will be in the future. In fact, the greater emphasis on partisanship and ideological purity probably means more unpleasant hopefuls will win in the future. It’s an understatement to say that DeSantis’s would-be presidential campaign is off to a rocky start. His initial comment that the war in Ukraine is a “territorial dispute” was absurd, and his obsession with Disney World seems bizarre.
But it’s unwise to treat the governor as if Trump has already locked up the Republican nomination. DeSantis has not yet announced that he is running for president, and he is only now receiving the scrutiny that viable candidates for the White House should expect.
Race can change
More important is that there is plenty of time for both men to make mistakes that will redefine the GOP presidential contest. Anyone who remembers John McCain carrying his own luggage in 2007 because his presidential campaign had no money and few staff should understand that campaigns change and candidacies ebb and flow. It’s far too early to call the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
But DeSantis has a fundamental problem. Trump voters remain loyal to the former president and DeSantis is starting to look weaker as a general election standard-bearer than he once did. Since electability was once one of DeSantis’s supposed advantages over Trump, questions about the governor’s viability could well turn into a major problem for him.
Trump continues to have considerable support in the GOP base, and he has already lined up endorsements from a majority of Florida’s members of Congress. We also know he is a vicious counter-attacker, which should give DeSantis pause.
But there are plenty of question marks surrounding another Trump bid for president, and DeSantis — or some other GOP hopeful — may be able to exploit those vulnerabilities.
It is still difficult to see anyone other than Trump or DeSantis capturing the GOP nomination, but both men could acquire their share of bruises over the next year.