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Is Ron DeSantis Flaming Out Already?

Thought Leader: David Frum
March 14, 2023
Source: The Atlantic
Written by: David Frum

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has long sought to avoid taking a position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. On the eve of the Russian invasion, 165 Florida National Guard members were stationed on a training mission in Ukraine. They were evacuated in February 2022 to continue their mission in neighboring countries. When they returned to Florida in August, DeSantis did not greet them. He has not praised, or even acknowledged, their work in any public statement.

DeSantis did find time, however, to admonish Ukrainian officials in October for not showing enough gratitude to new Twitter owner Elon Musk. (Musk returned the favor by endorsing DeSantis for president.) On tour this month to promote his new book, DeSantis has clumsily evaded questions about the Russian invasion. When a reporter for The Times of London pressed the governor, DeSantis scolded him: “Perhaps you should cover some other ground? I think I’ve said enough.”

Even his allies found this medley of past hawkishness and present evasiveness worrying—especially because he was on record, in 2014 and 2015, urging the Obama administration to send both “defensive and offensive” weapons to Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Crimea. So last night, DeSantis delivered a more definitive answer on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.

DeSantis’s statement on Ukraine was everything that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his admirers could have wished for from a presumptive candidate for president. The governor began by listing America’s “vital interests” in a way that explicitly excluded NATO and the defense of Europe. He accepted the present Russian line that Putin’s occupation of Ukraine is a mere “territorial dispute.” He endorsed “peace” as the objective without regard to the terms of that peace, another pro-Russian talking point. He conceded the Russian argument that American aid to Ukraine amounts to direct involvement in the conflict. He endorsed and propagated the fantasy—routinely advanced by pro-Putin guests on Fox talk shows—that the Biden administration is somehow plotting “regime change” in Moscow. He denounced as futile the economic embargo against Russia—and baselessly insinuated that Ukraine is squandering U.S. financial assistance. He ended by flirting with the idea of U.S. military operations against Mexico, an idea that originated on the extreme right but has migrated toward the Republican mainstream.

A careful reader of DeSantis’s statement will find that it was composed to provide him with some lawyerly escape hatches from his anti-Ukraine positions. For example, it ruled out F-16s specifically rather than warplanes in general. But those loopholes matter less than the statement’s context. After months of running and hiding, DeSantis at last produced a detailed position on Ukraine—at the summons of a Fox talking head.

There’s a scene in the TV drama Succession in which the media mogul Logan Roy tests would-be candidates for the Republican presidential nomination by ordering them to bring him a Coke. The man who eventually gets the nod is the one who didn’t even wait to be asked—he arrived at the sit-down with Logan’s Coke already in hand. That’s the candidate DeSantis is showing himself to be.

Desantis is a machine engineered to win the Republican presidential nomination. The hardware is a lightly updated version of donor-pleasing mechanics from the Paul Ryan era. The software is newer. DeSantis operates on the latest culture-war code: against vaccinations, against the diversity industry, against gay-themed books in school libraries. The packaging is even more up-to-the-minute. Older models—Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush—made some effort to appeal to moderates and independents. None of that from DeSantis. He refuses to even speak to media platforms not owned by Rupert Murdoch. His message to the rest of America is more of the finger-pointing disdain he showed last year for high-school students who wore masks when he visited a college.

The problem that Republicans confront with this newly engineered machine is this: Have they built themselves a one-stage rocket—one that achieves liftoff but never reaches escape velocity? The DeSantis trajectory to the next Republican National Convention is fast and smooth. He raised nearly $10 million in February—a single month. That’s on top of the more than $90 million remaining from the $200 million he raised for his reelection campaign as governor. His allies talk of raising $200 million more by this time next year, and there is no reason to doubt they will reach their target. DeSantis has been going up in the polls, too. According to Quinnipiac, Donald Trump’s lead over DeSantis in a four-way race between them, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley has shriveled to just two points.

After that midpoint, however, the DeSantis flight path begins to look underpowered.

Florida Republicans will soon pass—and DeSantis pledged he would sign—a law banning abortion after six weeks. That bill is opposed by 57 percent of those surveyed even inside Florida. Another poll found that 75 percent of Floridians oppose the ban. It also showed that 77 percent oppose permitless concealed carry, which DeSantis supports, and that 61 percent disapprove of his call to ban the teaching of critical race theory as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion policies on college campuses. As the political strategist Simon Rosenberg noted: “Imagine how these play outside FL.”

But even this understates the DeSantis design flaw.

More dangerous than the unpopular positions DeSantis holds are the popular positions he does not hold. What is DeSantis’s view on health care? He doesn’t seem to have one. President Joe Biden has delivered cheap insulin to U.S. users. Good idea or not? Silence from DeSantis. There’s no DeSantis jobs policy; he hardly speaks about inflation. Homelessness? The environment? Nothing. Even on crime, DeSantis must avoid specifics, because specifics might remind his audience that Florida’s homicide numbers are worse than New York’s or California’s.

DeSantis just doesn’t seem to care much about what most voters care about. And voters in turn do not care much about what DeSantis cares most about.

Last fall, DeSantis tried a stunt to influence the midterm elections: At considerable taxpayer expense, he flew asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard. The ploy enraged liberals on Twitter. It delighted the Fox audience. Nobody else, however, seemed especially interested. As one strategist said to Politico: “It’s mostly college-educated white women that are going to decide this thing. Republicans win on pocketbook issues with them, not busing migrants across the country.”

A new CNN poll finds that 59 percent of Republicans care most that their candidate agrees with them on the issues; only 41 percent care most about beating Biden. DeSantis has absorbed that wish and is answering it. Last night, in his statement on Ukraine, DeSantis delivered another demonstration of this nomination-or-bust strategy.

Desantis will be a candidate of the Republican base, for the Republican base. Like Trump, he delights in displaying his lack of regard for everyone else. Trump, however, is driven by his psychopathologies and cannot emotionally cope with disagreement. DeSantis is a rational actor and is following what somebody has convinced him is a sound strategy. It looks like this:

  1. Woo the Fox audience and win the Republican nomination.
  2. ??
  3. Become president.

Written out like that, you can see the missing piece. DeSantis is surely intelligent and disciplined enough to see it too. But the programming installed in him prevents him from acting on what he sees. His approach to winning the nomination will put the general election beyond his grasp. He must hope that some external catastrophe will defeat his Democratic opponent for him—a recession, maybe—because DeSantis is choosing a path that cannot get him to his goal.

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