The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion DeSantis has never been tested. And it shows.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) greets attendees and signs books on March 10 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Count me among those not in the least surprised that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is finding a pre-presidential announcement tour tough sledding, as his slide in the polls reflects. He has flipped and flopped on Ukraine, gotten an avalanche of bad press about his lack of interpersonal skills (and table manners) and felt compelled to at least tepidly defend defeated former president Donald Trump against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. DeSantis’s “experience” as Florida governor for a term and a few months looks to be insufficient to shield him from the bright lights of a national race.

Indeed, his Florida experience might be the problem.

Most important, DeSantis has not faced strong opposition. His first gubernatorial election was against a candidate hobbled by scandal; his second was against a stale opponent, former governor Charlie Crist, who failed to excite the Democratic base. Unlike some Republican governors who had to prove their mettle against Democratic legislatures (e.g., former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and former Maryland governor Larry Hogan), DeSantis has had a passive Republican legislature. The “challenge” for DeSantis has been to whip those lawmakers into ever more extreme positions.

During the Trump years, DeSantis had a friendly figure in the White House. And during the Biden years — as much as he wished to pick fights over the coronavirus response — DeSantis wound up twice on the receiving end of federal largesse, once after the Surfside building collapse and also in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. That isn’t what the base is looking for.

Like a boxer who has never had an adequate sparring partner, DeSantis seems utterly unprepared for the flurry of insults from Trump. DeSantis tried ignoring him and then tried halfheartedly shoving back. But Trump, an aggressive potential opponent with a feral instinct for weakness, has consistently outplayed DeSantis. Like most Republicans, DeSantis found himself criticizing Bragg and ignoring Trump’s outrageous threats of violence.

During his governorship, DeSantis’s fights have been against politically weaker people: schoolchildren, LGBTQ youths, schoolteachers, African American historians and ex-prisoners. Even his tussle with Disney was against a corporation that couldn’t very well pick up and leave the state. One might say DeSantis is out of practice, but in fact he has never had to face off against someone of equal or greater political heft. And now, up against a bigger bully, he looks overwhelmed.

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Until the past few weeks, DeSantis managed to hide at will from the media. Infamous for locking the press out, denying access to state decision-making and concealing information, he now finds himself ill-prepared for a national media that he cannot shunt aside. When he tries to avoid journalists, he looks bumbling, weak and scripted. When he engages with friendly interviewers, he fumbles outside his comfort zone. It’s one thing to rail about the “liberal media” in the abstract or propose changing defamation law so the media cannot report on him; it’s quite another to have to face journalists on a daily basis. And if he thinks things are tough now, one can only imagine how he’ll fare if he actually announces his candidacy.

Moreover, one of DeSantis’s key arguments against Trump is that he’ll be more serious, more professional and more focused. But that is utterly lost on Republican primary voters who have been trained to despise “establishment” figures who tout such characteristics. Calling himself low drama isn’t going to win over members of the base. They care not one bit about professional management skill; they want fire-breathing entertainment.

And perhaps most fatally for DeSantis, his claim to fame in battling the “socialists” and “elites” in endless culture wars doesn’t match up well against Trump, who called for his supporters to “fight like hell” before the Jan. 6 insurrection. The guy who literally invented the MAGA movement is never going to be outplayed by DeSantis on race-baiting, xenophobia, misogyny or Christian nationalism. (As to the latter, if DeSantis thought bringing up porn star Stormy Daniels would weaken evangelicals’ embrace of Trump, he hasn’t been paying attention. They long since gave up caring about personal character.)

As Public Religion Research Institute president Robert P. Jones writes, “One of the most blatant acts of public hypocrisy I’ve witnessed, in more than two decades observing conservative white Christians, was their easy discarding of the ‘values voters’ moniker along the road to supporting Trump.” Just as former vice president Mike Pence earns no points for piety from the base, evangelicals aren’t enamored of a candidate who is less crude, less promiscuous and less greedy than Trump.

Though he touts himself as the most capable Trump opponent, DeSantis might actually be poorly positioned to dislodge him. Never having faced a formidable opponent or the national media, DeSantis appears overwhelmed. His appeals to competence and to moral rectitude are laughably out of step with today’s MAGA Republicans. And because DeSantis has no other real successes, his emphasis on the culture wars is unlikely to sway voters who see Trump as the ultimate warrior, practically a religious figure who has been “fully embraced [as] an authoritarian figure they see as the savior and protector of white Christian America,” as Jones puts it.

If DeSantis wants to win, he had better toughen up fast. If he doesn’t want to be knocked out, he had better start throwing punches that might hit Trump’s weaknesses that matter to Republicans. He could start by telling voters Trump is too feeble, doesn’t know how to win anymore and isn’t tough enough on China. That might actually impress those who crave someone to fight on their behalf.

If DeSantis cannot turn around his feckless introduction and begin landing punches, Republicans nervous about choosing a manic and possibly indicted nominee who seems increasingly detached from reality might have to look elsewhere.