There’s a lot of talk about Ron DeSantis’ poor showing in the Iowa caucus. It’s destroyed his future. He’s not ready for prime time. The race exposed a dour and robotic personality. He’s just too unlikeable to be president.
I’m skeptical. For one thing, I suspect in a few months no one is going to care about the 2024 GOP primary results. In a few years, no one will even remember them.
DeSantis bet that Donald Trump would either step aside because of his mounting legal troubles (they’ve only galvanized the former president’s candidacy) or that Republicans were ready to move on to a more stable, competent and traditional candidate (they are definitely not).
It’s still early, but the uncomfortable truth is that there is probably nothing DeSantis did or didn’t do that really would have mattered.
For one thing, the former president is effectively running as an incumbent, and incumbents have a lot of things going for them. They have built-in party loyalties. Voters have already seen the incumbents win. There is name recognition and Trump, no matter what he does, is perpetually at the center of the political universe.
Trump, understanding all of this, ran for the general election, refusing to debate Republicans and moderating some of his positions. He could sit and watch Nikki Haley and DeSantis pound each other while his stalking horse, Vivek Ramaswamy, dropped bombs on both. Fair or not, as a campaign strategy it makes complete sense.
Although, of course, the notion that debates could have sunk Trump with Iowa Republicans is also wishful thinking. In 2016, I wrote an article laying out the pitfalls of debating Trump during a primary. Basically, it’s like Rocky Balboa taking on Thunderlips in “Rocky III.” To one extent or the other, politicians play by rules — either ones set by others, or ones they set for themselves. Trump plays by the rules of professional wrestling, which is to say no rules whatsoever.
Then again, even if DeSantis had devastated Trump in a debate, it’s unlikely to have made anything but a marginal difference. I don’t want to be the one to break this to people, but there is literally nothing Trump is going to say that will shock anyone. Trump’s support is predicated on a unique loyalty to a man, not so much any mission. Rather, the man is the mission.
Although it’s probably a minority view, I tend to think DeSantis would have benefitted by going after Trump’s chaotic leadership as president and his fecklessness during COVID, among other things, much earlier and much harder. If you’re going to run, run. Trump would never think twice about pounding an opponent. It’s not personal. It’s business.
Ultimately, though, that wasn’t going to change DeSantis’ fortunes. The Florida governor was running somewhat close to Trump (still a 20-point divide, mind you) when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted the former president at the end of March. It’s then that Trump really took off. Any criticism of Trump at that point gave the impression that you were rooting for the former president’s persecutors. Trump’s victimhood solidified the belief, not only that he deserved another shot but that winning would be the best revenge.
Whether general election voters see it that way is another story.
All that said, if Trump weren’t running, it’s likely DeSantis would be leading the GOP field right now. Most primary voters have no real substantive problems with DeSantis. It’s doubtful that even his antagonists would have problems with his personality or how he comports himself if he hadn’t committed the grievous sin of challenging their hero. As soon as DeSantis endorses Trump, all will be well. Trump values nothing more than loyalty to him, sprinkled with a little subservience.
It’s also worth noting that Trump is a movement of one. Just as anti-Trump forces delude themselves into believing they can convince Republicans to abandon the former president with some clever arguments, scaremongering or a new policy prescription, Trump fans seem to believe that MAGA’s success will extend beyond Trump.
In reality, candidates that ape Trump end up losing or severely underperforming. In states like Virginia, Georgia and Florida, competent candidates who fuse movement conservatism with some trendy populist rhetoric are the ones who have done well for themselves.
I’m not in the prediction business, but it’s probably too early to hold a funeral for DeSantis’ political career.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist. Harsanyi is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of five books — the most recent, “Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failed Ideas of a Dying Continent.” His work has appeared in National Review, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reason, New York Post and numerous other publications. Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.
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