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A governor popular in his own party announces for president with the promise to do for America what he did for his own state. He’s proud of his accomplishments, eager for America to embrace his successes. He was re-elected by a large margin. His campaign staff is confident they are working for the best governor in America and certain Americans will agree as they hear his story.
Michael Dukakis in 1987 or Ron DeSantis in 2022?
Take your pick. With the first ad of his presidential campaign launched by a
SuperPAC, Governor Ron DeSantis has adopted the Michael Dukakis strategy. And in doing so, has probably doomed his chances to win the nomination or the presidency.
Not satisfied with the obvious Dukakis-in-the-tank comparisons sparked by DeSantis’ “Top Gov” campaign ad, it’s as though the DeSantis brain trust closely studied past presidential campaigns and picked the Dukakis campaign as their model. Dukakis posed in a tank wearing a helmet. DeSantis posed in a fighter jet in a helmet. The most obvious difference was that the helmet seemed to wear Dukakis while it’s possible the jaws-of-life were used to free DeSantis’ ample head from his. Michael Dukakis had no answer to the most obvious question of what he would do if his wife were a victim of violent crime. Ron DeSantis had no answer to the most obvious question posed by Charlie Crist: would he commit to serving a four year term, if reelected, or was he already running for president? Michael Dukakis invited America to look closely at Massachusetts to appreciate the genius of his leadership. Ron DeSantis has decided to do the same.
It’s a great approach, except for everything that’s wrong with it, which is everything that’s going wrong in Florida. Why is this happening? How could a campaign make such obvious unforced errors?
The answer is simple: arrogance.
Michael Dukakis really did believe he had led a “Massachusetts Miracle.” He was surrounded by true believers who could not imagine others disagreeing. Ron DeSantis and his palace guard of sycophants have fallen into the same trap, or they at least know that, as with Donald Trump, pointing out flaws to egomaniacal, wannabe autocrats isn’t an effective way to keep your job.
In my years of helping elect candidates, I had a phrase I often used to advise candidates: “Never go for a murder conviction when manslaughter will do.” It was a cautionary warning to avoid overreaching. Don’t demand from voters more than you need to win. Don’t label an opponent “The Worst of Washington” when “Just as bad as Washington” will be more believable and disqualifying.
I hesitate to tell Ron DeSantis what to do for fear his campaign might actually be capable of learning, but the far better strategy for a governor running for president was the one taken by Bill Clinton in 1992. He had watched Dukakis be forced to defend his claims of Massachusetts greatness (remember the Bush attacks on the environmental quality of Boston Harbor or, yes, the attacks on the Massachusetts parole system that allowed Willie Horton to be released?). Clinton was careful not to fall into the same trap. Of course being from Arkansas, a state my fellow Mississippians ruefully praise when Arkansas shows up dead last in a category and bumps Mississippi up to just 49th, it would have been absurd to claim you wanted to “do for America what I did for Arkansas.” Instead Clinton declared, “There is no Arkansas miracle, only good people trying to make their lives a little better.” In doing so, he largely inoculated against attacks on his Arkansas record.
Ron DeSantis could have done a variation: “We’ve worked hard to make Florida a better place to live. There’s still much to be done but conservative leadership is working in Florida and it can work in America.” But that would evidence a combination of factors entirely lacking in DeSantis: self-awareness, humility, a touch of grace. Though Republicans have now stopped pretending they believe character is destiny, it remains true. Ron DeSantis is an angry, insecure, little man and those qualities will dominate his political life. They will be the Achilles heel in his very white boots.
This is a man so lacking in character, he made a commercial featuring his toddler building a border wall with toy blocks. This is a man so lacking in character he yelled at teenagers on stage for wearing masks during a pandemic, as they had been instructed to do so by the event organizers. This is a man so lacking in character he used state funds to mislead legal asylum seekers in Texas into believing relocating would mean greater opportunity and security, just so he could “own the libs” by flying them to Massachusetts, leaving them with nothing. Think about the depravity that went into that decision: “What can we do to prove we are more cruel than Donald Trump? What about kidnapping some vulnerable men, women and children whose only sin is that they still believed in an America that Ron DeSantis has abandoned, if he ever did believe?”
It is predictably telling and tawdry to see the desperate efforts of the National Review crowd, who once declared their fervent opposition to Donald Trump only to perform the Ted Cruz ring kissing ritual of submission, attempt to invent Ron DeSantis. Call them “DeSantis Deniers.” Because DeSantis knows which fork to pick up and lacks Trump’s grotesque vulgarity, they are attempting to hail him as the new Ronald Reagan. Never mind the facts. Never mind that Ron DeSantis, like Trump, refuses to assert that Joe Biden won a free and fair election. Once Marco Rubio was the Florida Republican savior, now it’s Ron DeSantis. Rubio’s fate awaits DeSantis.
It will be grimly amusing to watch the deconstruction of DeSantis should he actually summon the gumption to challenge Trump. It is one thing to bully teenagers and traumatized asylum seekers but another to challenge a cornered psychopath like Trump. “You don’t really think his wife had breast cancer, do you?” asked an operative from my Republican days who is still deep down the Trump well, “Did she ever lose her hair? Give me a break, this was all bullshit for DeSantis to try and make himself look a little human.” That is where Donald Trump will take this race and enjoy every minute of it.
How many people know that Ron DeSantis, who routinely accuses teachers of perverting their pupils, was a high school teacher at a ritzy Atlanta prep School? How hard is it to imagine Donald Trump taunting DeSantis: “A lot of people are talking about what happened with DeSantis and his students. He only taught one year and after he left, Georgia passed a law requiring schools to report teachers who abuse students. You think that’s a coincidence?”
And there’s the reality that if DeSantis did manage to defeat Trump in a primary, Trump would spend every waking minute trying to block him from the presidency, which he can easily do. All it takes is Trump endorsing an independent run by Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Ivanka Trump in Florida, Tari Lake in Arizona, and there is no path for DeSantis. If those “favorite son/daughter” candidates took even three percent of the DeSantis vote, there would be no path for DeSantis (or any other Republican) to win.
The two best options for DeSantis? Not challenge Trump and wait until 2028 or convince Trump he should be his VP. The VP route would require two almost unimaginable things to happen. Trump would need to be willing to share the spotlight with someone he’s desperately afraid will outshine him. And Trump would need to change his residency to NY or NJ since the Constitution prohibits a president and VP from the same state, but that’s hardly an obstacle. The latter is much more likely and easier to do. Dick Cheney was a Texas resident when picked by Bush and shifted his residency back to Wyoming. If there were a Trump-DeSantis ticket, one of two outcomes would unfold. Either Trump would win the presidency which positions DeSantis as the presumptive nominee in 2028 or Trump would lose. In either event, no one will blame DeSantis and he would be the overwhelming favorite for the 2028 nomination. For a guy who is only 42, there’s plenty of time.
Which brings us back to arrogance. Waiting until 2028 or playing to be Trump’s running mate are not the decisions an arrogant governor surrounded by sycophants will make. No, most likely DeSantis will run and Trump will relish destroying him like a budding serial killer torturing a pet. Ron DeSantis is not going to do for America what he did for Florida, but Donald Trump will do for DeSantis what he did to every other Republican opponent.
Run, Ron, run. History’s footnotes await your arrival.