The Right Resistance: Ron DeSantis may be running, but can he catch Donald Trump?
By Jeffery A. Rendall
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The old saying aptly describes the state of the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential primary race these days, as the more the calendar creeps forward – and changes – the more the balance remains the same. Ever since former president Donald Trump got the whole thing started a few months ago in mid-November, it’s been a long waiting game to see who has the gumption to challenge him.
It’s mostly been an endurance test awaiting word from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to determine whether the much-anticipated Trump vs. DeSantis, old vs. young, populist showman vs. future of the party politician contest materializes. There’ve been clues along the way, but few souls have said outright that a clash is inevitable.
That too, is beginning to change. Commenting on DeSantis’s moves of late, in a piece titled “Ron DeSantis is Definitely Running”, the mostly insightful Peggy Noonan wrote at The Wall Street Journal last week:
“Two DeSantis question areas: First, his temperament. Does he connect with voters on the trail? How does he play it when he gets smacked around in debate? On the stage in his 2022 debate with Democrat Charlie Crist he seemed defensive and testy. This when he was on top of the world with a landslide coming. You don’t have to be a happy warrior, but you probably can’t be a morose one.
“Second, can he learn to explain his thinking? He tends more to announce decisions than explain how he got there. But in the culture wars especially, you must take time and show your good faith. Can he come down with force and logic when nuts on his own side get out of line? A supporter in the state Legislature this week put out a bill that would mandate bloggers register with the state. It was absurd. More was needed from Mr. DeSantis than a statement that he had nothing to do with it. It was an opportunity to share his thinking—almost a magic moment.
“Connected to that, can he explain his own legislation at length, thoughtfully, with context and pertinent, checkable facts? Why let a reasonable and constructive limit on kids and wokeness be slimed as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill?”
As usual, Noonan is keen in her observations. Peggy used to be one of my favorite opinion writers until she seemingly fell off the proverbial rails during Donald Trump’s candidacy and administration. I don’t recall if she actually endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it was clear Noonan believed Trump was simply a fame seeking phony instead of someone who was genuinely mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Noonan’s willingness to embrace the DC swamp establishment must’ve lost her a number of former admirers – myself included.
But for now, Peggy appears to be back, and touches on a couple issues that will definitely impact DeSantis. On Noonan’s first point, if I were advising DeSantis, I would tell him to study tape of the 2015/16 Republican primary debates, where Trump used his mastery of presentation and body language to offset some of his more obvious agenda deficiencies. A good NFL quarterback spends almost as much – or more — time in the film room as he does on the practice field (analyzing his next opponent’s defensive tendencies), and so should a Trump opponent on the Republican debate stage.
Trump mixed humor with substance on numerous occasions, a rare quality in politicians, and in the process, transformed himself from a wealthy playboy famous guy to someone people could envision representing the country as commander in chief. I’m not sure if it was Trump’s strategy, but whatever it seemed he didn’t know, he made up. It sounds kind of like my philosophy when taking law school exams – though his results ended up much better than mine did for me.
Every candidate practices for upcoming debates, but again, if I were DeSantis, I would find someone soon who does a credible Trump impression and instruct him to be as hard-edged and nasty as he possibly could be to ensure that Ron doesn’t get testy in the face of being challenged. Temperament means only so much in any campaign, but voters need to see evidence that a 44-year-old with kids at home can keep it together under the glare of the live TV network lights.
Trump is viewed as an elder statesman, even if he’s rough around the edges. DeSantis looks young – and he won’t get away with appearing petty and vindictive against a much older man. Sad to say, but it’s true.
Also, can DeSantis deliver a punch? I think experience suggests he can. But more importantly, can he take one? This is where Ted Cruz came up short eight years ago. Cruz packed all the intellectual power any candidate could ever have, but he was visibly bothered by Trump’s below-the-belt jabs that wouldn’t let up. Cruz wore his emotions on his sleeve, something Trump hardly ever did.
Perhaps it would behoove DeSantis to enlist Cruz’s help in some debate prep strategy sessions.
As far as Noonan’s second question – whether DeSantis can explain his thinking – this will be vitally necessary in the upcoming battle. As Noonan mentioned, DeSantis recently released a book containing some of his Florida experiences and laying out ideas for the future. This is all well and good, but many of the folks who would read the book are already in DeSantis’s corner.
A recent survey showed Trump way ahead with GOP voters with a high school degree or less. DeSantis had a modest lead among the educated lot. Here’s thinking the high school and under crowd aren’t going to read DeSantis’s book. Not because they aren’t smart enough, but the fact they favor Trump’s combativeness and spirit of leadership over the numbers game. They like his agenda, too, but what they want the most is someone who will take on the leftists and smack them in the proverbial nose.
In addition, part of DeSantis’s challenge will lie in coming up with innovative and potentially election-changing ideas. It’s often been claimed that Donald Trump won in 2016 with the brilliance of a single move – his introduction of a list prepared with the guidance of the Federalist Society which detailed a modest host of judges he would consider appointing to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the sudden death of legendary originalist Justice Antonin Scalia.
Trump didn’t do it right away – he needed to win the nomination first – but with the initiation of the “list”, Trump instantly dismissed one of the biggest concerns many conservatives harbored about a Trump candidacy. Was he a true conservative? Could he be trusted to carry through with his promises? Would he place his ego to the side and refrain from appointing his sister or a good friend to the open High Court seat?
After the vote on Election Day, many of those surveyed revealed the impending Supreme Court nomination was paramount for deciding who to vote for. By all appearances, most of the fence sitters went for Trump – and probably because he let it be known ahead of time the type of jurists he was partial to, namely those who would follow in Scalia’s footsteps.
And Trump was as good as his word on the Supreme Court and federal judgeships in general.
Can Ron DeSantis follow with his own strike of brilliance on some issue? We won’t know until the campaign starts, but he certainly must find a way to convince the “always Trump” voters that he will come in and lay waste to the Washington establishment the way Trump tried doing. Trump didn’t succeed in draining the swamp in his first term, largely because he proved to be a poor assessor of talent to staff the upper echelons of his administration. And it cost him. DeSantis noticeably carries a Trumpian-level of disdain for the media and has ably demonstrated a willingness – almost eagerness – to fight the left’s heavyweight contenders (such as teachers’ unions, Big Tech and LGBTQIA+++ loving Disney) and takes delight in winning everywhere he sets foot, but it remains to be seen whether his “act” will play outside of the narrow confines of his own state.
Florida’s rapidly changing demographics and an influx of conservative believing escapees from liberal blue states has turned the Sunshine State from blue-ish to purple to now, bright red. Florida Democrats must feel like Republicans do in California, namely that they’ve been steamrolled by invaders (legal in Florida’s case) and weighed down by a total lack of leadership in their ranks. DeSantis took advantage of a friendly legislature to get a lot of what he wanted done. There’s little doubt he led the effort, but staring down a veto-proof Republican majority in the Sunshine State is considerably easier than what Donald Trump encountered on his first day in office – riots from leftist thugs and an establishment opposition (from both parties) willing and able to dam up the process.
DeSantis needs to show, somehow, that he won’t work with the establishment – and still beat them. It won’t be an easy task, even if it’s clear, to some, that DeSantis is running.