With the months, weeks and days ticking down towards the 2024 Republican presidential primary caucuses and primaries starting early next year – and the polls pointing to former
president Donald Trump as the undisputed frontrunner -- some of Trump’s intra-party rivals are trying out new tacks to loosen the popularity knot that binds them.
Speaking of knots, Trump himself has been tied up quite a lot lately dealing with his courtroom problems, which is probably by design (Trump appearing in person, that is) and a function of the establishment media’s enduring fixation on ruining the former president’s comeback attempt.
What we’re not seeing is Trump emerging from his virtual public relations fortress to take on his Republican challengers face-to-face. This too is definitely intentional. It seems to be working for Trump, but it’s also making his fellow competitors anxious and at a loss to find a campaign plan that works to their advantage.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried one such new ploy last week. In an article titled “DeSantis Accuses Trump of ‘Mailing In’ Campaign”, Phil Wegmann wrote at Real Clear Politics:
“’With all due respect to Donald Trump,’ DeSantis told Maria Bartiromo on Fox News…, ‘we’re not going to beat the Democrats by adopting Joe Biden’s basement strategy.’
“The governor was deliberately refurbishing one of Trump’s favorite attacks, namely that Biden hid from voters and the press during the pandemic, setting up shop in his basement rather than stepping into the spotlight for scrutiny. ‘I got a guy who stays in his damn basement all day long,’ the former president lamented in front of a brimming Virginia crowd in September 2020, ‘and I’m doing this.’
“While the rallies remain a staple, Trump is now the one who will not meet his critics or rebut their criticism ‘mano a mano,’ leaving the DeSantis campaign with the distinct impression that the former president might not be the same debate brawler who so easily bullied the last GOP field. They think he may have lost a step. They clearly hope to prod him into a showdown. Mostly, though, they say voters deserve to hear Trump defend his record directly.”
It's a valid point, and I used to believe it (that Trump “owes” us a debate) too, but after the first two “official” Republican debates turned out to be much less than expected in terms of issue philosophical warfare, instead seeing the participants vying to determine who could bash newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy the most noticeably -- I’m not so sure any longer.
It’s only natural for DeSantis to now begin a more aggressive strategy to poke at Trump, including resurrecting the “He’s ducking the debates” line of argument.
Could it be that DeSantis is now seeking to save face? Perhaps Gov. Ron is acknowledging that the race has gotten away from him and he’s shifting gears to preserve his credibility for a future run? Time will tell. If you’re at least open to considering any of the not-Trump Republican presidential candidates, you have to feel for DeSantis. From the moment of dreaming up the idea of running for president, the first and eternal question had to be for him and his advisor team, “How will we treat Donald Trump?”
No doubt their initial strategy, as has been evident for months now, was to ignore Trump to the greatest extent possible and try to win over Republican voters with tales of DeSantis’s policy fights, accomplishments and sheer will to soldier-on – all while avoiding getting down into the political mosh pit so as to engage with the ultimate dirty campaign combatant and hope to match him proverbial eye-poke for proverbial eye-poke.
It hasn’t worked all that well, has it? Whereas at the beginning of this year people were sending me screenshots of DeSantis’s favorability/un-favorability vis-à-vis Trump’s, now they’re no longer doing it. The campaign, the national media exposure, Trump’s attacks, DeSantis’s own personality shortcomings and a host of other factors – not the least of which were Trump’s legal problems – have come together to create a perfect storm of sympathy for the former president and, at the same time, doubts about DeSantis’s ability to win the election and perform as president.
At every step DeSantis confronted the reality that Trump himself was always going to have about one-third, minimum, of Republican primary voters in his corner, a very high threshold for any challenger to overcome. That’s a level that incumbents take into primaries, and although Trump hasn’t been in office since the 2020 debacle election, he’s acted as a de facto opposition leader to senile president Joe Biden the whole time.
If it wasn’t Donald Trump who is the GOP’s leader, who would it be… Mitch McConnell? Heck, McConnell’s approval ratings are the worst in American politics today (-40+%, Wowza!). Does anyone on either side of the political spectrum “fear the turtle”?
So therefore, DeSantis confronted the daunting task of attempting to capture the entirety of the not-Trump vote while simultaneously working to cut Trump’s solid margin. It could conceivably happen for a nationally known face with ideological credibility and a penchant for giving as good as he got. Who would that be, Elon Musk? Not eligible. The spirit (literally) of Ronald Reagan? Not eligible either.
DeSantis and his supporters couldn’t have known how solid Trump’s backers were and how divided the not-Trump bloc was. The establishment (and some conservative outlets, too) media was telling the Florida governor about how well-regarded and popular he was. Clearly, he believed them. He seems to have discounted the possibility that the same evil corporate media that’s been after Trump for all these years would begin a two-front war and go after DeSantis, too.
Face it, there were a ton of ruling elites who hated DeSantis almost as much as they did Trump and were itching for an opportunity to dent the younger man’s popularity before he became an out-of-control political force who would lay waste to “wokeness” wherever he found it. Aided by a friendly legislature, DeSantis has gotten pretty much whatever he asked for in the Sunshine State, and he’s gotten a LOT done.
So, I believe, DeSantis went into the 2024 campaign believing his candidacy would catch fire, he’d dispatch all of the other wannabe presidential candidates along the journey and the contest would be narrowed rather quickly to the me vs. you-type match he’d been banking on. The only problem is, none of this ensued. And as soon as DeSantis looked beatable, the others started blasting DeSantis rather than savaging Trump. The challenge got that much harder.
Gov. Ron’s other vulnerabilities came into focus at that point. He clearly didn’t relish intense retail politicking. He has young kids at home, and he presumably hoped to maintain a semblance of family harmony at this stage of his life (this isn’t a problem for most presidential candidates). Meanwhile, his beautiful and capable wife Casey was portrayed by the media as the ambitious “brains” behind his political operation and was oft-compared to Lady MacBeth and/or Hillary Clinton. And that’s not a flattering position for a woman.
Now, DeSantis is confronted with the much bigger question of how to go after Trump without looking petty, vindictive, weak and desperate. It kind of reminds me of the ending scene from the epic thriller “Gladiator” when the reigning Roman emperor decides the only way he could rid himself of the hero Maximus (and therefore, retain power) was to fight and beat him in the grand arena in a duel to the death. We all know how the story ends – Emperor Commodus weakly flails in a final attempt to finish off Maximus (who’d been fatally stabbed before the match by Commodus trying to cook the odds) and pathetically flops, himself succumbing to the greater competitor using the monarch’s own weapon.
In case you’re wondering, Trump is Maximus and DeSantis is Commodus in this analogy.
We won’t know for some time whether DeSantis’s new, more assertive scheme to go directly at Trump will pay dividends for the governor’s presidential campaign, but it will likely work to help him reestablish his authority at home while possibly setting himself up for a follow-up run in 2028 or later. We shouldn’t forget that DeSantis is “only” forty-five, his birthday coming a little less than a month ago (September 14). Any damage sustained from his somewhat lackluster effort this year will have been forgiven or forgotten in the future, where memories aren’t long and career “resurrections” happen all the time.
If you don’t believe it, look at the late John McCain’s fascinating life.
DeSantis picking at Trump’s unwillingness to debate certainly won’t make a dent in Trump’s core support, since the former president’s backers have commended him for staying away anyway. And it’s hard to argue that Trump was smart in skipping at least the first two forums, since he’s probably at or near his polling ceiling, and being in Milwaukee or Simi Valley would’ve just provided an opportunity for Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson (in the first debate), and to a lesser degree, Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence to quiz him about policy decisions gone wrong.
Trump is well-known for exaggerating things, so much so that some observers have suggested to “take him seriously, not literally.” Even his Never Trump detractors understand the concept. It’s highly unlikely that DeSantis bringing up old topics now will bear him much fruit next January and February, when conservatives actually vote.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’s time is running short to establish himself as Donald Trump’s main/lone Republican competitor, so there’s not much risk to the Floridian to attempt a more aggressive approach to attacking Trump’s record. Trump still has to earn the nomination and what DeSantis is doing these days is small potatoes compared with what Democrats will do next year.
It’s all part of campaign 2024.
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