Friday, March 24, 2023

Is DeSantis out before he's in?

 It seems as though it was only last week that the powers that be in the Republican Party were ready to anoint Ron DeSantis as the heir apparent to Donald Trump. The more sober-minded, not totally-sold-out-to-MAGA Republican politicians and pundits were uniting behind the Florida governor and proclaiming that a vote for anyone else was a vote for Donald Trump. Uncharacteristically for Republicans in past half-decade, this was considered to be a bad thing.

Granted, it’s a little ironic that most of the Republican politicos who were rushing to endorse DeSantis and point fingers at skeptics were largely the same people who rushed to endorse Donald Trump and lock out challengers to the incumbent president in 2020. The Venn diagram of Republican elites who wanted no one other than Trump in the last cycle and who are frantic to be rid of The Former Guy in 2024 is pretty close to no overlap.

Donald J. Trump looks at diagrams and photos during his meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official Photo by Shealah Craighead)

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But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Although we are still at a point that would normally be very early in the primary cycle, DeSantis has not yet tossed his hat in the ring. In failing to do so, he has allowed Trump, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy (who?) to steal a march on him. To make matters worse, DeSantis seems to have failed to catch on with Republican voters despite some high-profile endorsements as well as also making some significant missteps on the pre-campaign trail recently.

One of the most damaging incidents was when DeSantis characterized the Russo-Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute” on Fox News. As the AP details, DeSantis may have thought that he would be able to split the baby between the pro-Ukraine traditional conservatives and the pro-Putinists in the MAGA wing of the party. No such luck. After an outcry, the governor reversed himself, calling his remarks “mischaracterized,” and said that Vladimir Putin was a “war criminal.”

The damage was done, however. Governors almost always have to prove their chops on foreign policy and the misstep and quick u-turn hurt DeSantis’s credibility. The moment gave Trump the opportunity to say that DeSantis was “following what I am saying” and that it was a “flip-flop.” Third-place candidate Nikki Haley was quick to agree, calling DeSantis’s performance “weak.”

When Donald Trump raised the possibility that he would be arrested this week, a claim the New York DA now calls “a false expectation” created by the former president, DeSantis similarly tried to have it both ways.

Reacting to the story at a press conference, CBS News quotes the governor as poking fun at Trump, saying, “I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair, I just can't speak to that,” before calling the matter “some type of manufactured circus by some Soros DA.” The response seems to vacillate between acknowledging that Trump could have acted illegally while at the same time dismissing the possible indictment as politically motivated.

These two incidents underscore the difficulty that DeSantis - or any Republican - is going to have knocking off Donald Trump. The Republican Party is a deeply divided party, with a large share of Republican voters still beholden to Trump. The other half of the party may not necessarily dislike Trump, but they do see him as a liability.

To win the nomination, a Republican who isn’t Trump is going to have to whittle away at Trump’s base while consolidating the majority of the non-Trump factions of the party. The rub is that the two sides of the party are not united in much more than their visceral dislike of all things left. That makes it very hard for any candidate to bridge the gap. How do you consolidate the two wings of a party that are supporting opposite sides in a literal shooting war?

There are a few different schools of thought on that. One way is to be a leader and win the other side over to your camp. A different tactic is to triangulate and make both sides think that you’re one of them. Yet another possibility is to carve a plurality out of the middle while trying to depress turnout for your opponents.

Thus far, it seems that DeSantis’s strategy has been to veer to the right by engaging in culture wars in an attempt to woo Trump’s base. The problem is that Trump’s base does not appear willing to be wooed.

It isn’t that they don’t like DeSantis, they just don’t like him in a two-way race with Trump. At a lot of rallies and public events, Republican voters say that they like both men but see DeSantis more as vice presidential material or a standard bearer in 2028. It’s not uncommon to see Republican rally-goers wearing both Trump and DeSantis gear (with The Former Guy’s garb is always more prominent), but that may not last as the two sides dig in and become more hostile to the other.

The bottom line is that what DeSantis is doing now is not working. Trump consistently leads in primary polling by healthy margins, and I’ll wager that the indictment stunt will give The Former Guy an added boost as Republicans circle the wagons. An Emerson College poll from last week found that DeSantis even trails Trump in his own state of Florida.

If and when he finally announces, DeSantis will probably get a polling bounce, but that won’t be a permanent gain. It probably won’t even be enough to take Trump’s lead temporarily. The governor is going to have to find a formula that works and he is already running out of time and distance to do so.

There are two big reasons that DeSantis is losing. One is that the Republican Party is still the party of Donald Trump. The second reason is that DeSantis is trying to be everything to everybody. In so doing, he comes off as insincere and not genuine. The “flip-flop” label is often deadly for political candidates.

And as for DeSantis’s elite backers, Heath Mayo of Principles First had an excellent point when he compared the elite DeSantis backers to the anti-anti-Trump faction of a few years ago. These were people who didn’t want to be labeled as Trump supporters, but they were much tougher on Trump critics than on the man himself. Anti-anti-Trump was composed of people who thought that the big problem with Trump was the mean tweets.

The problem for DeSantis is that anti-anti-Trump was transactional. They didn’t really have a problem with Trump, so they rallied to him when they thought he could win. Now, the DeSantis campaign is only a means to an end for them. If Trump or someone else becomes the nominee, they’ll pull the lever for whoever the Republican candidate is.

Not so for Trump’s voters. Many of them probably don’t have a second-choice Republican. A very large share of Trump voters will stay home rather than turn out for Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley or whatshisname. Some might even cross over to vote Democrat out of spite.

The Republican elites know this. As much as they don’t like Trump, they do realize that nominating someone else would split the party, assuring a Biden (or whoever the Democrats nominate) victory in 2024. With the prevailing attitude of party-over-all in the GOP, the reluctant DeSantis supporters will eventually fall in line and vote Trump when he becomes the nominee yet again.

A few months ago, I was convinced that DeSantis would run. Now, I’m not so sure. He is an astute politician and he can see which way the political winds are blowing. I’m starting to think that he may sit this one out.

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NONE OF THE ABOVE: I want to add a footnote to the above piece. I know a lot of Republicans who don’t want either Trump or DeSantis. A lot of my extended family members fall into this camp.

These people are largely evangelical Christian conservatives who were iffy on Trump before and swore (or at least stated strongly) that they would never vote for him again after January 6. The preferred candidates for these people are Nikki Haley and Mike Pence.

Polling indicates that people in this group are a minority with both Pence and Haley accounting for about six percent each , but I do wonder how many nominally Republican voters are out there who would stay home or leave the race blank if Trump is the nominee. I think it’s a lot more than MAGA believes.

In a close race, like 2020, the large number of people alienated by Donald Trump would probably prove decisive once again.

NO INDICTMENT YET: In an update to our Trump indictment story from last weekend, Manhattan DA Alvin Briggs has not indicted Trump yet, although the grand jury was scheduled to meet on March 23. In a letter responding to Republican congressional inquiries and hand-wringing, Briggs wrote that the Republican requests “only came after Donald Trump created a false expectation that he would be arrested the next day and his lawyers reportedly urged you to intervene. Neither fact is a legitimate basis for congressional inquiry.”

ANOTHER LEGAL UPDATE: Following up on my story about the piercing of attorney-client privilege between Trump and his attorneys, the appeals court panel has ruled in favor of the Department of Justice. The Hill reported on Thursday that Trump attorney Evan Corcoran must comply with a subpoena from special counsel Jack Smith. The filings are under seal, but the next step would probably be a further attempt to appeal to the full court.

HE HAD THE FISH: I want to say a quick word about the incident in which Southwest Airlines pilot who fell sick. The healthy pilot was aided by a pilot from another airline who was flying as a passenger.

First, even though airliners require two pilots, most aren’t that difficult to fly. One pilot typically communicates on the radios and programs flight computers while the other flies. Most pilots who have gone through simulator training have probably done the pilot incapacitation drill in which they had to land the plane without help. The second pilot is there for redundancy and workload management.

Second, it isn’t rare for airliners to carry off-duty airline pilots. Many pilots commute to work by flying in unsold seats or the cockpit jump seat.

It was a good thing that an off-duty pilot could assist in the incident, but this was not an “Airplane” movie scenario in which the passengers were in danger. There was a healthy pilot at the controls the entire time. The person most at risk was the pilot undergoing the health emergency.

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