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Just Wait Until You Get to Know Ron DeSantis

David Frum Worldwide Speakers Group
Thought Leader: David Frum
November 30, 2022

Governor Ron Desantis has a growing store of admirers. This includes many who have watched the cantankerous Floridian only from afar. They have heard glowing things. He was the biggest winner of an otherwise dark election cycle for Republicans. He has impeccable bona fides as a Donald Trump disciple—without being Trump himself, whom many see as the biggest loser of said dark election cycle.

This has made DeSantis the GOP’s hottest molecule. He is full MAGA without the high drama. He is terrorizing all the right targets while Trump keeps blowing himself up in new and creative ways. “He is Trump with a brain,” goes the whispered refrain among DeSantis aides (this clearly drives Trump nuts—always a noble goal).

While essentially working from home, DeSantis has managed to build an impressive cachet as a favored Fox News funambulist, a flypaper for big donors, and an owner of libs. He has fashioned a kind of GOP utopia in the Sunshine State—where the boss himself chooses to reside, but is safely cordoned off in Palm Beach. DeSantis, meanwhile, clearly runs the empire. “Florida is where woke goes to die,” he said in his chest-thumping victory speech on Election Night.

The question is whether DeSantis’s presidential hopes will perish as he starts getting out more on the Iowa–New Hampshire dating apps. People who know him better and have watched him longer are skeptical of his ability to take on the former president. DeSantis, they say, is no thoroughbred political athlete. He can be awkward and plodding. And Trump tends to eviscerate guys like that.

“He was standoffish in general,” the Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock, a former House colleague of DeSantis’s, told me.

“A strange no-eye-contact oddball,” Rick Wilson, a Republican media consultant, wrote on Resolute Square.

“I’d rather have teeth pulled without anesthetic than be on a boat with Ron DeSantis,” says Mac Stipanovich, a Tallahassee lobbyist who set sail from the GOP over his revulsion for Trump and his knockoffs. To sum up: DeSantis is not a fun and convivial dude. He prefers to keep his earbuds in. His “Step away from the vehicle” vibes are strong.

To stipulate: None of this is necessarily disqualifying.

On the contrary, it could lend DeSantis credibility as an outsider irritant. He is not just another smoothie politician, not part of the “establishment.” Since Trump descended his escalator and dragged the GOP down with him, the party has shown a persistent tolerance, even inclination, for churlish bastards—just as long as they are churlish toward the right rascals, reprobates, and agents of wokeness. DeSantis has a Trumpian proficiency for identifying these. If that leads to cruel treatment of vulnerable populations (refugees, gay and transgender teens), even better.

But no shortage of alleged heavyweights have entered previous primary races only to reveal themselves as decidedly not ready for prime time, or even late-night C-SPAN. Political handicappers and fundraisers overhype them. Expectations create a cryptolike bubble. Then they finally show up and fail to dazzle. The gloss fades fast. You can ask President Beto O’Rourke about this.

“I think he is going to run into some challenges,” Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who served with DeSantis in the House, told me. “It’s that question that often comes up in politics—the question of ‘Would you want to have a beer with him?’’’ This is a big-time cliché, of course, but it does feel pertinent. Will he grow on voters like a catchy song, or like mold? DeSantis “has this robotic quality that he has to shed,” Curbelo said. “Everything else checks the box. He is smart and competent and committed to his ideology. He just has to humanize himself.”

All while Trump will be running DeSantis through his patented dehumanizer machine, which made such mashed mush of his rivals in 2016. Trump’s efficient cartooning of “Low-Energy Jeb,” “Liddle Marco,” and “Lyin’ Ted” left them flailing pathetically.

“On a debate stage, all of Trump’s strengths go straight to DeSantis’s weaknesses,” Stipanovich told me. Trump has energy and presence; DeSantis “is dour and doesn’t improvise particularly well.” People who are appropriately sycophantic to Trump swear he possesses a certain charm and charisma. Even those who are eager to vouch for DeSantis don’t say this about him. He would launch any charm offensive unarmed.

“My sense is that Trump would gut DeSantis with a dull deer antler,” said Stipanovich, who has a taste for violent animal metaphors. He also predicted that “Trump would club DeSantis like a baby seal.”

In fairness, DeSantis is not completely defenseless. So far, Trump has whined that DeSantis has not been sufficiently loyal or “classy” toward him. He called DeSantis an “average REPUBLICAN governor.” He’s given him a mean nickname, “Ron DeSanctimonious,” which to be honest is kind of meh—not midseason Trump by any means. DeSantis brushed it off as “just noise.”

Like Trump, DeSantis has a feral, shameless quality. As an underdog candidate for governor in 2018, DeSantis showed a remarkable willingness to prostrate himself before the then-president, even by the cringey standards of Trump-era toadyism. The apex—or nadir—of this effort involved an ad in which the candidate is shown reading a bedtime story to his baby son, the latter clad in a red make america great again onesie.

“Then Mr. Trump said, ‘You’re fired,’” the doting dad reads. This gambit proved wildly effective for DeSantis, propelling the backbencher congressman to an upset victory in the Republican primary. There might be no better example of a candidate allowing his political identity—and self-respect—to be totally devoured by his allegiance to Trump, at least for as long as it suited him. For the sake of the child, hopefully this scene will never be spoken of again.

The pure nerve that allowed DeSantis to so debase himself before Trump and then promptly turn against his former kingmaker could serve him well. DeSantis understands intuitively that loyalty in politics can be a loser’s proposition. “Ron’s strength as a politician is that he doesn’t give a fuck,” a Republican consultant told The New Yorker. “Ron’s weakness as a politician is that he doesn’t give a fuck.”

“I don’t think Ron hangs out with anybody, from what I can tell,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said during an appearance on the Ruthless podcast. Christie, who encountered DeSantis at Republican Governors Association meetings, said his Florida counterpart tended to remain cocooned inside his entourage. “I don’t see him hanging with the other governors,” Christie said.

DeSantis works harder than Trump does, and is more disciplined and capable of adapting. He attended Yale and Harvard Law School and clearly took some classes in populism. He could conceivably grow more adept at carrying on conversations in diners and pretending to care about the pet issues of self-important state reps in the North Country.

But certain political skills are more innate, and require an ability to ad-lib that DeSantis lacks. He can appear needlessly snappish and reactive (earlier this year, he scolded a group of high-school students for wearing masks onstage behind him). One particular interlude during DeSantis’s 2022 campaign bears revisiting. It occurred during a debate with his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, who attempted to pin down the governor on whether he would commit to serving out his four-year term if reelected. In other words, was DeSantis running for president in 2024 or not? “Yes or no, Ron?” Crist pressed him. DeSantis froze. “It’s a fair question and he won’t tell you,” Crist said, filling the silence.

Finally, a moderator jumped in and reminded the candidates that they were not permitted to ask each other direct questions, allowing DeSantis to regroup. “Well, I know that Charlie is interested in talking about 2024 and Joe Biden,” DeSantis said, delivering what was clearly a rehearsed line. “But I just want to make this very, very clear. The only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.” Cute recovery. But still awkward.

DeSantis probably figured—rightly—that he was in no danger of losing to Crist and might as well suffer through the silence rather than complicate things when he decides to bolt from Florida to run for president. But a fluid politician could have better finessed that exchange. And Trump likely took note and filed this away. “He knew and assessed the weaknesses of DeSantis on the debate stage and in the media space,” Wilson wrote in his Resolute Square essay, concluding that Trump will tear him to pieces. “He smelled blood.”

Republicans who want to save the party from Trump are investing great hope in a blank slate. The New York Post has dubbed him “DeFuture.” I would dub that DeBatable.

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