When the national media reports on DeSantis’s doings, it focuses almost exclusively on his culture warrior persona: banning mask-wearing and vaccine mandates; promoting the “Don’t Say Gay” law; attacking the Advanced Placement course on African-American history; his incessant attacks on LGBTQ Floridians, especially transgender folks; injecting right-wing ideology into the state’s universities; banning books from school and public libraries; and battling Disney and other “woke” companies.
That’s really most of what we know about him. However, given his national political aspirations, that is about to change.
DeSantis’ theory of the 2024 presidential race appears to rest on two premises: (1) that he can wrestle the MAGA-verse from Donald Trump because a growing number of Trump cultists want a Trump without the crazy; and (2) that his anti-woke culture war message will play just as well nationally as it apparently has in Florida.
While he may be correct with respect to Republican primary voters (he has to be because he will be running in the same lane as Trump), I suspect that he is not at all spot-on when it comes to appealing to the majority of general election voters. As in most presidential elections, they are likely to be more concerned with major issues like the economy, crime, the economy, the Ukraine war, the economy, China and…the economy, and wanting to know his views on Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid (as a congressman, he was not exactly all in on entitlements), and the Affordable Care Act.
DeSantis has elected to go hard-right during the primary campaign season. Should he win the nomination, his challenge will be tacking back to the middle, essential if he is to win the general election. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was unable to do so, and it might have cost him the election. DeSantis, who will have to make that journey from much farther to the right, is going to experience even more difficulty making the transition.
While he now looks like the Republicans’ bright, shiny, new object, the sheen may quickly wear off once he ascends the debate stage alongside Trump, Nikki Haley and the other likely GOP presidential wannabes (anyone remember Scott Walker?). During his 2022 debate with Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Charlie Crist, an interminably and incurably weak opponent, DeSantis had to struggle to answer even simple questions, and responded with dead silence when Christ asked him if he would serve a full term as governor. He will have to do much better on the national debate stage. The questions will only be tougher and orders of magnitude more discomfiting. Moreover, Trump will try to rip him to shreds as only he can.
So far, De Santis has limited his media appearances to the Rupert Murdoch bubble—Fox News, the New York Post, the London Times, milieus where he is guaranteed softball questions designed to boost his appeal. Even his obligatory pre-presidential campaign book (reviewers call it “robotic” and “boring”) was published by a Murdoch company. A national candidate will not get a comparable pass from the mainstream media, whose questions will not be quite as friendly. Uncomfortable questions will be posed about his Covid response (Florida had the 4th highest number of Covid cases per capita, and the 12th highest Covid death rate among states), election denialism, his views about the January 6, 2021 insurrection and Ukraine.
During his most recent trip to Iowa, DeSantis said he doesn’t view Ukraine as a vital U.S. security interest. He wanted the MAGAverse to see that there is no daylight between him and their cult hero, Trump. This not only demonstrates stunning and extremely dangerous foreign policy ignorance, but also must have prompted Vladimir Putin to do a gleeful jig now that he has a second major presidential candidate vying for room in his pocket. What DeSantis has done is to give Putin an incentive to hang on in Ukraine until January 2025 when a compliant Republican might once again occupy the Oval Office.
DeSantis’s affect may also not be a plus. He appears to be something of a humorless sourpuss and a bit thin-skinned, traits that, if the past is an indicator, are not conducive to presidential electoral success. It will be fascinating to see how he responds when Trump unleashes on him. It could be quite the awakening.
March 17, 2023