Is Ron DeSantis not yet ready for prime time? His performance over the last couple of weeks has not instilled confidence. We’ve watched him flip-flop on everything from cutting entitlement programs to his support of Ukraine. We have also seen Trump belittle him with nicknames like “Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron,” not to mention implying that he’s a “groomer.” (DeSantis also just denied an anecdote in The Daily Beast report that he once ate pudding with three fingers on a private flight. Gross.)
This erratic behavior seems to have left a mark. As The New York Times’ Nate Cohn wrote last week, “In surveys taken since the Trump offensive began two months ago, Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, has steadily lost ground against Mr. Trump, whose own numbers have increased.” And that was before DeSantis tried to have it both ways regarding the potential arrest of Donald Trump. (He criticized the prosecutor, while adding, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”)
But I’m more moved by what is admittedly anecdotal: the vibes. Watch a clip of DeSantis’ recent interview with Piers Morgan, and he suddenly seems mortal. Common. He lacks the charisma and confidence that we see when he controls the setting and lectures Florida reporters.
What’s the problem? Like pornography, you know it when you see it. His body language betrays him. He doesn’t look comfortable in his skin. His laugh seems creepy. These criticisms may seem superficial, but just ask Kamala Harris how politically damaging such perceptions can be.
Slaying a monster like Donald Trump requires a certain presence. But in his Piers Morgan interview, DeSantis comes across as a politician who wants to hit his talking points and prove logically why he’s superior to Trump. And the thing is, you don’t slay dragons with logic. You need guts, heart, and a razor-sharp sword (or, in this case, tongue).
The streets are littered with the political corpses of men who seemed eight feet tall and bulletproof before running for president. Rick Perry was a rock star in Texas before he ran for president. Fred Thompson was a literal movie star. There were others, including Gen. Wes Clark and America’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani. I could go on.
I spent some time with Perry leading up to the 2012 presidential race. To be honest, he seemed terrific. Only later did I recognize that this was always in his milieu. Most of our interactions happened at firing ranges or over barbecue, and they always happened in Texas. He controlled the venue, and he put himself in a position to excel.
Similarly, I think that DeSantis has been able to stack the deck in his favor in Florida. The upside is that he was able to cultivate a powerful brand as a tough yet effective leader. The danger is that this is a form of protectionism. He has never had to practice being outside of his comfort zone. Until now.
In what has become a legendary caught-on-camera soundbite, former Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville warns a referee that “NFL means ‘not for long,’ when you make them fuckin’ calls.” Glanville’s message was profanely blunt, but also correct: “Up here” (as they say) in the big leagues, only the best of the best survive. This lesson is one of many that Ron DeSantis is learning now—or is about to learn.
This is not to diminish his amazing accomplishments in Florida. DeSantis was re-elected there by a wide margin. On top of that, he has elevated his political profile enough to be Donald Trump’s undisputed rival within the GOP. This is an impressive feat, but the question remains: will he be Patrick Mahomes or Tim Tebow? Based on the last few weeks, it’s starting to look like the latter.
One problem for DeSantis is that Trump changed the game. The type of schemes that worked for the Washington Redskins in 1987 probably wouldn’t hold up when facing the Kansas City Chiefs today. The players are bigger and faster now, too. DeSantis had the luxury of watching Trump change politics. And, to be sure, DeSantis has embraced many of these changes (as evidenced by his tough demeanor and his flip-flops). But as Abe Greenwald recently suggested on The Commentary podcast, DeSantis “is a politician that actually believes in some things,” which—when it comes to lying and pandering—makes him “bad at it.”
Sure, it’s theoretically possible that DeSantis could improve on the trail. But his performance over these last couple of weeks reminds me that he was a fairly average pol before Trump ever came down that escalator.
And it’s likely to get worse. While DeSantis fends off Trump’s attacks (including his argument that under DeSantis, Florida isn’t all that great), he will also face scrutiny from national media and be forced to defend policies he has piloted in Florida. These include policies around LGBTQ and trans people, and other culture war-slanted issues (including books being taken out of classrooms and wanting to change laws that protect journalists) that he cleaved to outflank Trump on the right.
All this to say, he will be fighting a two-front war. And he will have to do much of it on someone else’s turf (in places like Davenport, Iowa, or Manchester, New Hampshire).
Can he rise to the occasion? These last few weeks, he seems smaller. He seems less confident. He seems out of his league.