The simple reason DeSantis is struggling so badly against Trump
"The Florida governor's honeymoon is over -- partly because he and the Republican establishment killed their best argument against Trump.
Ron DeSantis’ honeymoon is over.
After his re-election in November, Florida’s Republican governor cemented himself as the Republican establishment’s great non-Trump hope. But even before he formally enters the presidential race, DeSantis’ momentum has disappeared. Monmouth University’s Republican primary poll shows a 15 point gain for former President Donald Trump since December, while DeSantis has dropped 12 points. Other surveys tell a similar story. NBC News reports that "a number of the Florida governor’s donors and allies are worried his recent stumbles suggest he may not be ready."
How has DeSantis tripped up so spectacularly? As usual when it comes to Republican politics, the answer involves Trump. And DeSantis and the GOP establishment have once again played themselves.
Like many other Trump foes, he can’t even settle on how to respond to Trump’s attacks.
When DeSantis’ poll numbers started rising, Trump wasted no time hurling attacks at his rival. He road-tested numerous nicknames, settling on “Ron DeSanctimonious.” He claimed — without proof, of course — that DeSantis had groomed high school students. And he even made, by Trump standards, an almost substantive case against DeSantis’ actual record:
“It’s poorly written and has Trump’s usual weird capitalization issues,” as MSNBC columnist Michael A. Cohen tweeted, “but it is also a pretty compelling argument against a DeSantis presidential bid.” It also has Trump’s typical spin — of course a president running for re-election got more votes in Florida than a governor running in a nonpresidential election year. But the inaccuracies and distortions only slightly weaken the attacks, because their thrust — that DeSantis’ views and actions are “a mirage” — is accurate.
Like Derek Zoolander, DeSantis has only one look. If he has a Democrat or media straw man to light on fire, then he plays the angry fighter. But take that away, and he twists in the wind, waiting for Republican voters to tell him what they want. “DeSantis looks like a Bush Republican as much as or more than he does a Trump one,” writes The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie — a diagnosis that reveals less about DeSantis’ establishment lean than it does his ideological rootlessness. His recent twisting on the war in Ukraine echoes similar shifts on pandemic restrictions, entitlements and vaccines, to name just a few.
Such vacillating is largely a problem for the general election — Mitt Romney in 2012 and John Kerry in 2004 are just two recent nominees who struggled to overcome past flip-flops. But for the GOP primary, DeSantis’ indecision creates a different problem: Like many other Trump foes, he can’t even settle on how to respond to Trump’s attacks. For months, he tried to ignore Trump. Then he briefly tried to needle the president over his hush money case. Only in the last couple of days has DeSantis returned to citing his re-election, as he did late last year when his poll numbers were at their best.
The only way to beat Trump is to choose attacks early, dial them up to 11 and stick with them. In 2020, Joe Biden didn’t hold back on the former president’s racism, incompetence and corruption. The no-holds-barred approach doesn’t always work — ask Hillary Clinton — but it fares far better than the approach his Republican foes used in 2016. But because DeSantis depends so heavily on the GOP base telling him what it wants, he’s put himself at a disadvantage in trying to take on a candidate whom they still like.
An all-out attack on a primary rival is easier when you believe the candidate’s nomination will be a grave mistake for the party.
This isn’t only DeSantis’ fault, though. It’s the fault of the whole Republican establishment, and it goes back to the 2020 election. Trump may have insisted that he won the 2020 election primarily to assuage his own ego. But he also recognized that if Republican voters accepted that he was a “loser,” his brand was done.
More from MSNBC Daily
Must reads from Today's list
Remember, DeSantis’ post-midterm polling bump stemmed precisely from his re-election, in contrast to the serial losses of Trump’s favorites — defeats that went by and large unchallenged. Had Republican leaders rejected the conspiracy theories two years earlier and admitted (even tacitly) that Trump was a political loser, it could have permanently damaged his standing. Instead, they pre-emptively neutered their future champion’s most compelling argument to the base: DeSantis won, and Trump didn’t.
Why throw away this golden opportunity? Why flinch every time Trump swipes? Why refuse to win the only way you can against Trump — by throwing the kitchen sink back at him? It’s certainly not as if presidential primaries are conducted with a lighter touch — ask anyone who witnessed the vicious contest between George W. Bush and John McCain.
An all-out attack on a primary rival is easier, though, when you believe the candidate’s nomination will be a grave mistake for the party. And neither DeSantis nor the rest of the Republican establishment believes the man who instigated the attack on the Capitol is a threat to their party, let alone democracy. Some Republican politicians will privately bewail Trump anonymously to reporters. Some even tut-tutted him publicly once or twice after voting for most or all of his legislative agenda. Some will assure us in their future memoirs that they never liked him. But publicly, they’ll sit on their hands and condemn their party to stay in Trump’s hands.
Maybe DeSantis recovers between now and next February, when Iowa Republicans make their choices. But for now, he and the Republican establishment would rather doom their own chances than truly take on Trump. One can hope their strategy doesn’t doom the country too."