The DeSantis Delusion
By Frank Bruni
"Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
If Ron DeSantis is supposed to be more electable than Donald Trump, why did he sign a ban on most abortions in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy? That’s manna for the Christian conservatives who matter in Republican primaries, but it’s a liability with the moderates and independents who matter after that point. It steps hard on DeSantis’s argument that he’s the version of Trump who can actually beat President Biden. It flattens that pitch into a sad little pancake.
If DeSantis is supposed to be Trump minus the unnecessary drama, why did he stumble into a prolonged and serially mortifying dust-up with Disney? Yes, the corporation publicly opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and that must have annoyed him. He’s easily annoyed. But the legislation was always going to pass anyway, and he indeed got what he substantively wanted, so there was no need to try to punish Disney and supercharge the conflict — except that he wanted to make a big, manly show of his contempt for the mighty Mouse. He wanted, well, drama. So there goes that rationale as well.
And if DeSantis, 44, is supposed to be tomorrow’s Trump, a youthful refurbishment of the 76-year-old former president, why does he seem so yesteryear? From his style of hair to his dearth of flair, from his emotional remove to his fugitive groove, there’s something jarringly anti-modern about the Florida governor. He’s more T-Bird than Tesla, though even that’s too generous, as he’s also more sedan than coupe.
On Wednesday he’s expected to rev his engine and make the official, anticlimactic announcement of his candidacy for the presidency. I just don’t get it. Oh, I get that he wants to be the boss of all bosses — that fits. But the marketing of DeSantis and the fact of DeSantis don’t square. Team DeSantis’s theory of the case and the case itself diverge. In many ways, he cancels himself out. His is a deeply, deeply puzzling campaign.
Which doesn’t mean it won’t be successful. Right around the time Trump was declared the 2016 winner, I exited the prediction business, or at least tried to incorporate more humility into my own storefront, and I humbly concede that I feel no certainty whatsoever about DeSantis’s fate.
He has a legitimate shot at the Republican presidential nomination. He absolutely could win the presidency. He governs the country’s third most populous state, was re-elected to a second term there by a nearly 19-point margin, wowed key donors, raised buckets of money and has widespread name recognition. To go by polls of Republican voters over recent months, they’re fonder of him than of any of the other alternatives to Trump. Nikki Haley and Asa Hutchinson would kill to have the kind of buzz that DeSantis has, which mostly tells you how buzzless their own candidacies are.
But do Republican voters want an alternative to Trump at all? The polls don’t say so. According to the current Real Clear Politics average of such surveys, Trump’s support is above 55 percent — which puts him more than 35 percentage points ahead of DeSantis. Mike Pence, in third place, is roughly another 15 percentage points behind DeSantis.
There’s an argument that Trump’s legal troubles will at some point catch up to him. Please. He’s already been indicted in one case and been found liable for sexual abuse and defamation in another, and his supporters know full well about his exposure in Georgia and elsewhere. The genius of his shameless shtick — that the system is rigged, that everyone who targets him is an unscrupulous political hack and that he’s a martyr, his torture a symbol of the contempt to which his supporters are also subjected — lies in its boundless application and timeless utility. It has worked for him to this point. Why would that stop anytime soon?
But if, between now and the Iowa caucuses, Republican voters do somehow develop an appetite for an entree less beefy and hammy than Trump, would DeSantis necessarily be that Filet-O-Fish? The many Republicans joining the hunt for the party’s nomination clearly aren’t convinced. Despite DeSantis’s braggartly talk about being the only credible presidential candidate beyond Biden and Trump, the number of contenders keeps expanding.
Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Hutchinson and Larry Elder, a conservative talk radio host, have been in the race for a while. Tim Scott filed his paperwork last Friday and made a public announcement on Monday. Pence and Chris Christie are expected to join the fray in the coming days or weeks, and three current governors — Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Doug Burgum of North Dakota — remain possibilities. That’s one potentially crowded debate stage, putting a premium on precisely the kind of oomph DeSantis lacks. Next to him, Pence sizzles.
Most of these candidates are in a pickle similar to DeSantis’s. It’s what makes the whole contest so borderline incoherent. Implicitly and explicitly, they’re sending the message that Republicans would be better served by a nominee other than Trump, but they’re saying that to a party so entirely transformed by him and so wholly in thrall to his populist rants, autocratic impulses, rightward lunges and all-purpose rage that they’re loath to establish too much separation from him. They’re trying to beat him without alienating his enormous base of support by beating up on him. The circus of him has them walking tightropes of their own.
And DeSantis has teetered, time and again. His more-electable argument is undercut not only by that Florida abortion law — which, tellingly, he seems to avoid talking about — but also by the measure he recently signed to allow the carrying of concealed firearms in Florida without a permit. That potentially puts him to the right of the post-primary electorate, as do some of the specific details — and the combined force — of legislation that he championed regarding education, the death penalty, government transparency and more. In trying to show the right wing of the Republican Party how aggressive and effective he can be, he has rendered himself nearly as scary to less conservative Americans as Trump is.
And as mean. The genius of Scott’s announcement was its emphasis on optimism instead of ire as a point of contrast with Trump, in the unlikely event that such a contrast is consequential. “Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: victimhood or victory?” Scott said. “Grievance or greatness?” Victimhood, grievance — gee, whoever could Scott have in mind? But DeSantis is all about grievance and retribution, and he’s oh so grim. He sent two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. He exults that Florida is “where woke goes to die.” How sunny! It’s the Trump negativity minus the Trump electricity.
His assertion that he wants to end Republicans’ “culture of losing” is an anagram for the accusation that Trump has prevented the party from winning, but I doubt the dig will resonate strongly with the Republican base. As Ramesh Ponnuru sagely observed in The Washington Post recently, Trump’s supposed toxicity is a longstanding part of his story and his brand. “For many conservatives,” Ponnuru wrote, “Trump’s 2016 victory reinforced the idea that ‘electability’ is a ploy used by the media and squishy Republicans to discredit candidates who are willing to fight for them.”
The campaigns of DeSantis and the other would-be Trump slayers rest on the usual mix of outsize vanity, uncommon ambition and stubborn hopefulness in politicians who reach for the upper rungs.
But their bids rest on something else, too — something I share, something so many of us do, something that flies in the face of all we’ve seen and learned over the eight years since Trump came down that escalator, something we just can’t shake: the belief that a liar, narcissist and nihilist of his mammoth dimensions cannot possibly endure, and that the forces of reason and caution will at long last put an end to his perverse dominance.
DeSantis is betting on that without fully and boldly betting on that. It’s a hedged affair, reflecting the fact that it may be a doomed one.
Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Instagram • @FrankBruni • Facebook"
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