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Ron DeSantis has reached a perilous point: Inevitability

Can you recall another politician who seemed like an Inevitable Candidate for their party and time? Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Gary Hart, Thomas Dewey, Robert A. Taft …

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) celebrates onstage during his midterm elections night party in Tampa. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Ronald Dion DeSantis is an Inevitable. He is 44 years old, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, a Navy Reserve officer with a telegenic, accomplished wife and three adorable children. In 2018 he squeaked into the governorship of Florida by about 32,400 votes, but he was reelected last week by a margin of about 1.5 million. He reddened traditional Democratic counties, drafted large shares of the youth, independent and Hispanic votes, and built on his handling (however debatable) of the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Ian. Over the course of this year, in some polls, DeSantis pulled ahead of Donald Trump as Republican voters’ preferred presidential nominee for 2024; Trump in turn bestowed him with a trademark childish nickname (“Ron DeSanctimonious”), a sure sign of the governor’s rise in popularity. Four days before the midterms his wife, Casey DeSantis, a former TV anchor, tweeted a campaign video that implied God Himself not only endorses Ron but molded him into “a fighter” who will save America from “hysteria,” among other perils.

And so the governor’s inevitability becomes all the more inevitable, as the Republican Party falters outside of Florida, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire falls in line, and the winds of punditry shift and strengthen — sometimes at the candidate’s own summoning.

“While our country flounders due to failed leadership in Washington,” DeSantis said in his victory speech, “Florida is on the right track.”

“If the Florida governor ever intends to wrest control of the GOP from Trump, now is his moment,” read the headline on an Atlantic article by David Frum last week.

If he runs “he will be a formidable candidate,” Jeb Bush told Neil Cavuto in October.

Jeb Bush was also an Inevitable. Hillary Clinton was an Inevitable (twice!). Neither’s inevitability yielded the presidency. That’s the tricky thing about being an Inevitable.

“What voters will be looking for a year from now, or two years, is very unpredictable,” says Alex Conant, who was communications director for the presidential campaigns of Marco Rubio (once an Inevitable) and Tim Pawlenty (never an Inevitable). “So that candidate who looks perfect for the current moment might not be what they want later. Jeb and Trump are the perfect examples.”

Upon his 2010 election to the Senate, Rubio, at age 39, became an Inevitable. When Conant was considering whether to work for the new senator, “a lot of people I respected said flat out: ‘This guy’s going to be president someday,’ ” Conant says now. “But there’s a difference between saying ‘that guy will be president someday’ and saying somebody is going to be president in 24 months. It’s more of a compliment than a prediction.”

Two years into his first term, Rubio was on the cover of Time magazine with the neon-yellow headline “THE REPUBLICAN SAVIOR.” That very week, he awkwardly lunged for history’s tiniest bottle of water during a live response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Is this visual gaffe when Rubio’s inevitability began to wane? Or was it in 2016, when Chris Christie — himself briefly an Inevitable — called out Rubio’s robotic repetition of rote talking points … moments before Rubio robotically repeated a rote talking point.

“There it is,” Christie said on the debate stage in February 2016, and you could feel the last wisps of inevitability disperse into the New Hampshire night. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech.”

To Rubio’s right on the stage was Jeb!, who was, as DeSantis is now, a popular governor of Florida and who, unlike DeSantis, had a presidential surname to gird his candidacy. Jeb was a proven job creator, a compassionate policy wonk and an early magnet for big donors in the 2016 campaign cycle. He was Inevitable, and then he was roadkill.

Does Jeb have any reflections on the phantom nature of inevitability?

“I am going to take a pass,” emails Jeb, sweetheart that he is, in response to a query. “Thanks for thinking of me.”

We are thinking of others, too. Inevitables abound throughout history. Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, another son of a president, ran for the office three times; he lost the 1948 Republican primary to Thomas E. Dewey, who himself was such an Inevitable that the Chicago Daily Tribune immortalized his nonexistent victory over Harry Truman in a front-page headline.

Sometimes inevitability swirls among multiple candidates in a single cycle. Remember Howard Dean? In 2004 he had a dalliance with inevitability, until he was de-inevitabled by the media obsession over the Dean Scream,” defined in the annals of Wikipedia as “a hoarse ‘Yeah,’ ” for those of you who’ve forgotten (though how could you?). John Edwards had inevitable hair; his $1,250 haircut helped to sap his inevitability in the 2008 campaign.

What creates inevitability? It’s a strange brew of popular tastes, media narration, circumstances (social, economic, political), and candidate qualifications and characteristics. At the core of political punditry is a paradox: Those who know very much also know very little. And so inevitability is — like most things — easier to diagnose in hindsight. At the outset of his political career, there was nothing inevitable about Barack Obama. Then he gave an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and suddenly he became more inevitable than John Kerry, the actual nominee that year. Over the next few years, Obama buttressed his innate charisma with an election to the U.S. Senate. The winds moved in his direction: amorous media coverage, fatigue with the era of George W. Bush, a major recession at a pivotal point in the 2008 campaign — and suddenly Obama seemed like an Inevitable all along.

The ultimate Inevitable Who Wasn’t? Historian Joshua Zeitz offers Henry Clay, the senator and big Whig who ran for president in three separate decades of the 19th century.

“He was absolutely supposed to be president,” Zeitz says. “He ran multiple times and came painfully close in 1844. He got beaten out by contingency, by forces beyond his control, by candidates who were better than him, like Andrew Jackson. He was remembered as someone who kept trying. There was a whole generation who expected him to become president.”

Zeitz also mentions Gary Hart, the Democratic senator from Colorado who ran for president in 1984 and 1988.

“The media helped create his inevitability, and he himself was a great communicator,” Zeitz says of Hart. “And there’s nothing the media loves more than a rise-and-fall story.”

Sometimes the only truly inevitable thing is the dashing of inevitability. Hart’s quest in ’88 was thwarted by journalists snooping through his love life. But the sense of inevitability around him goes back to 1980, and was not of his own doing. So says Gary Hart himself.

We’ve reached him at his home office, in the foothills outside Denver. He turns 86 this month but is sharp-minded about the past, present and future of the country. Hart divides national candidates into two groups: the destined and the circumstantial. He puts himself in the latter category, and says inevitability was an external force surrounding him, not an internal desire beamed outward. Hart sources his inevitability to Ronald Reagan’s election, which swept Republicans into power. The party nabbed 12 Senate seats from Democrats — but not Hart’s.

“I was one of the few that survived,” Hart says, “and it changed my status overnight.” His phone began to ring. A new crop of candidates — Dick Durbin in Illinois, Bob Kerrey in Nebraska — wanted him to make campaign appearances. Hart began to hear certain refrains in everyday conversations with citizens: We need new leadership morphed into You oughta run for president. He had never felt inevitable, but he was becoming an Inevitable.

“I had to begin to think about it, and take it somewhat seriously,” Hart says. In ’84 he won the New Hampshire primary and nearly a third of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. In April 1987, polling well ahead of other potential Democrats, he again declared his candidacy.

“I believe, with the assistance and support of the American people, I can help lead America toward its future and to achieve its promise, its destiny and its ideal,” Hart said then, a bit of the inevitable in his rhetoric, as he stood in black cowboy boots on a slab of sandstone at Red Rocks Park outside Denver, according to a New York Times report. Two months later, a fellow senator, 44-year-old Joe Biden, joined the race for the Democratic nomination. Unlike Hart, Biden had thought of himself as an Inevitable for decades at that point, but his performances in the ’88 and 2008 presidential campaigns did nothing to convince the public. Biden never really seemed inevitable, and yet he was inevitable all along.

Hindsight, foresight. Inevitability springs from both. Trump never seemed inevitable before his election, and yet, since his defeat, he’s retained a kind of boomerang inevitability. Until last week. In the two days after the midterms, YouGov polled 1,500 Americans: Trump or DeSantis in 2024? Republicans preferred DeSantis, 41 to 39 percent. That’s 2 percent, in one poll, more than a year before the voting starts. The outcome of a showdown of Republican Inevitables is anything but foregone.

Don’t worry, though. Once whatever happens happens, it will all seem perfectly predictable.

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