With his pre-campaign for president stumbling before getting to the starting gate, donors, voters and pundits across the political spectrum are beginning to ask whether Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is ready for prime time.
Following a series of lackluster performances at home and abroad, steadily shrinking poll numbers and his feud with Mickey Mouse that makes him look like Goofy, he is making his former idol and role model, Donald Trump, a very happy rival.
He went on a four-nation “trade mission” to show his foreign policy chops but was unable to articulate a clear foreign policy philosophy. He “failed to impress” British business leaders, who found his “low wattage” performance “horrendous,” Politico reported.
He told Japanese hosts they’re “a heck of an ally.” He’s been to Israel four times, and his latest visit seemed rather oxymoronic. The governor, who is waging wide-ranging and bitter cultural wars at home, spoke at the dedication of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept his meeting with the governor very low-key to avoid offending Trump, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office told reporters. DeSantis expressed no concerns privately or publicly about Netanyahu’s autocratic assault on the judicial system and democracy; maybe that’s because the governor is on a similar path in Florida.
DeSantis has his principles, and if you don’t like them, he has others
DeSantis has his principles, and if you don’t like them, he has others. Nowhere was that more on display than his contradictory statements on Ukraine.
He told isolationists watching Fox Nation it was merely a “territorial dispute.” After taking a lot of flak from other quarters, he attempted to walk that back by calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” who was “wrong” to invade his neighbor.
HE HAS yet to announce a presidential exploratory committee, much less formally toss his hat in the ring, but already some influential backers are having second thoughts.
Politico reports financial leaders are souring on DeSantis, citing “stumbles” and “gaffes” on everything from Ukraine to “his personal demeanor,” making him appear less “formidable.”
GOP mega-donor, Thomas Peterffy, says he and “a bunch of friends” have put plans to help DeSantis on hold because the governor “seems to have lost some momentum,” The Guardian reported. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman also reported big money people “are getting worried.”
But not all, apparently. According to Politico, “Wall Street sours on DeSantis,” although it elsewhere said the governor has raised $110 million for a possible presidential race, double that reported so far by the Trump campaign.
Trump appears to have a solid hold on his base, but DeSantis polls better among more educated voters and suburban Republicans, where Trump is weakest. They seem impressed with his attention to detail and that he is less impetuous and emotional. Both men, though, are more focused on peddling their grievances, one personal and the other cultural, than on a cohesive vision for the future.
DeSantis is the dark prince of woke, spreading his cultural crusade not to cure society’s ills but to bury them.
He calls Florida under his governorship “the place where woke comes to die.” The term “woke” originated in black slang, meaning to be aware of social injustice and racial inequality, but has been coopted by conservatives to brand that awareness as a threat to the white status quo.
The flagship of his woke crusade is his “Don’t say gay” law, which effectively bans teachers from educating children about LGBTQ+ issues, something he condemned as “woke gender ideology.” The strongest criticism came from the Walt Disney Company, the state’s largest employer and its leading magnet for tourism, the state’s biggest money maker.
Ron DeSantis vs Disney
The vengeful DeSantis retaliated by pushing through his puppet legislature a number of punitive measures. When Disney refused to buckle, he passed new reprisals and even threatened to build a prison on property adjacent to the theme park.
Both sides have taken their battles to the courts, with Disney accusing him of political “retribution.” The smart money says Mickey Mouse will be around long after Ron DeSantis is gone.
This only enhances DeSantis’s growing reputation as vindictive and spiteful. He is hypersensitive to media criticism, and his lackeys in Tallahassee are pushing bills to make it easier to sue journalists and harder for them to access public records or criticize the governor.
He has pushed through a ban on abortions after six weeks and a prohibition on selling certain types of Florida land to citizens of China and other “countries of concern.” His signature “achievements” include penalizing the teaching of critical race theory, and restricting bathroom access, stirring anger against minorities, LGBTQ+ and immigrants. He wants to ban books, not guns.
HE IS CHARISMATICALLY-challenged and an uninspiring speaker who wants people to believe he should be the next leader of the Free World. Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin writes that his ambitions are hindered by a character flaw: He’s “an unlikeable jerk.”
Former aides, friends, supporters and those who know him say he is a bully, rude, cantankerous, awkward, robotic and not a guy with whom you’d want to have a beer.
Watching him speak, one is inclined to think Trump picked the right nickname: Ron DeSanctimonious. He may also have thinner skin than the notoriously thin-skinned, disgraced former president.
In a party where many are secretly hungering for an alternative to Trump, his poor performance is especially disappointing. He is not responding to Trump’s steady barrage of attacks, including claims about his support for cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits when he was a member of Congress, his eating habits, and his alleged contacts with female students when he was a teacher.
You’d think a Yalie with a Harvard Law degree would be smarter. Running to the right of Trump may sound good on Fox and Newsmax, but it won’t help him if he becomes the party’s nominee and seeks the swing voters in the center who Trump lost in 2020 and who ultimately decide elections.
DeSantis has taken his test drive on the road for months and seems to be hitting a lot of potholes. He may decide he’s not ready for prime time and needs to wait four years to hone his skills for a White House bid. He still hasn’t formally announced his candidacy, but he is building a war chest and doing a lot of traveling.
His intentions should become clearer later this month as his legislature concludes its business. My bet is he’ll go for it; it will be interesting to see whether he can punch above his weight.
He’s shown he can take shots at an animated mouse and LGBTQ+ children, but can a bully stand up to another bully?
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant and lobbyist, and the former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.