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Will DeSantis’s Campaign Go the Way of Rubio’s Failed 2016 Bid?

The establishment keeps hyping these alleged GOP superstar challengers who turn out to be insufferable duds.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks with attendees at a rally at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 14, 2022.

I should probably be ashamed to admit this but my favorite part of any presidential election season is the Republican primaries, especially the debates. Since Republicans rarely have an incumbent president running (they have only had three Republican presidents in the last 35 years) the primaries are usually a free-for-all that features some very eccentric fringe characters as well as the precipitous fall of at least one highly touted conservative hero who everyone in the political establishment assumed was a shoo-in just months before.

I think back to 1992 which featured what we all thought was a completely beyond-the-pale Pat Buchanan speech at the RNC that the late great Molly Ivins famously quipped “sounded better in the original German.”(That speech now sounds like virtually every GOP candidate running for any office.) In 2008 the open primary offered up the excitement of yet another Hollywood actor-turned-Republican politician in Fred Thompson, then a senator from Tennessee, who had the entire political press corps in a swoon, convinced that he was the next Ronald Reagan. Like so many others, Thomas quickly flamed out on the trail, showing himself to be a bad retail candidate once he had to mingle with the polloi in Iowa and New Hampshire.

2012 featured yet another presumed savior in Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who weirdly opened nearly every appearance with a quip about his “red-hot, smokin’ wife.” He convinced the establishment that he was the perfect candidate to win over Democratic moderates, who were believed to be dying to vote for a midwestern Republican governor for some reason. His ads were awesome:

He dropped out after coming in third in Iowa.

But nothing can beat the 2016 GOP presidential primaries for sheer spectacle. (I actually did 22 podcasts about that crazy race.) That was, of course, because of Donald Trump. There were several serious contenders in that race, from former Gov. Jeb! Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of Florida, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But nobody came close to the hype about yet another midwestern governor, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who was presumed to have a magic touch because he’d beaten a recall attempt a couple of years before. He was backed by the mighty Koch brothers who had been instrumental in his rise in Wisconsin and had amassed a massive war chest.

Unfortunately, it turned out once again that a colorless automaton wasn’t quite the winning personality everyone was looking for. Walker lost his frontrunner status almost as soon as he announced his campaign and steadily declined in the polls as more people began to get to know him. His debate performances were the final nails in his coffin. After the first one he dropped below 5 percent and in the second he was a cipher. He dropped out not long after when he finally went below 1 percent.

In fairness, those debates were dominated by Donald Trump’s wild performances and nobody fared very well against him. But Walker was unique in that he had run through many millions and didn’t even make it to Iowa. As I wrote here in Salon at the time:

The sad fact is that Walker has been the most overrated politician in the country based largely upon the Republicans’ quixotic desire to find a leader who can put a respectable face on its increasingly disreputable base — and the media’s odd willingness to not believe what their eyes were telling them: that Walker was a terrible candidate. Like Pawlenty and Thompson before him, he may have looked good on a PowerPoint presentation, but in reality he showed few signs of life on the debate stage or on the stump.

Hmmm. Does that remind you of someone by any chance? Yes, I thought it might.

This year’s GOP savior was supposed to be Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis, the anti-woke crusader who managed to win big in his re-election race in 2022. He’s been getting tons of press ever since he launched a culture war offensive the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Alabama’s George Wallace in the 1960s. Trying desperately to get to Trump’s right in a quixotic attempt to appeal to the hard-core MAGA cult without ever criticizing Trump himself, DeSantis created the persona of a cyborg in a stacked heel boot, relentlessly stomping on “woke” wherever he found it.

But no one can pry Trump’s devoted base away from him. The only hope anyone ever had was to try to lure away everyone else in the party and get all the GOP-leaning independents. It was never a very likely possibility but at least it made some logical sense. DeSantis’ strategy has been a massive flop and like Walker before him, he has wilted like a week-old bag of butter lettuce once he had to perform.

After several campaign shake-ups and a so-far unsuccessful attempt to change the message, the conventional wisdom is that he has one more chance to turn things around. If he performs well in the debate next week, maybe he can regain some momentum. The problem is that he’s not a very good debater:

Tweet about Ron DeSantis looking like a deer in headlights and Charlie Crist is the car with clip of debate

The New York Times reported on Thursday that DeSantis’ Never Back Down Super PAC has some ideas on how he can improve his performance and they posted them online. The debate strategy memo was created by the political consulting firm of Axiom Strategies owned by Jeff Roe, the Super Pac’s chief strategist.

The Times reports:

The document outlines a strategy framed around Roger Ailes’ “Orchestra Pit media theory,” which proposes that headlines won’t be achieved by getting bogged down in policy discussions, but by creating viral moments through directed attacks, emotional statements, and clippable quotes. […]

“There are four basic must-dos,” one of the memos urges Mr. DeSantis, whom the document refers to as “GRD.”

“1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State GRD’s positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”

I get the idea that he must attack Joe Biden and the media, that’s standard stuff, but he’s going to have to dig deep for a “positive vision” because that’s really off-brand. Sadly, defending Donald Trump is very much on brand which is one of the main reasons why Trump is going to win the nomination. Some of the most pugnacious Republicans are mewling kittens when it comes to him.

But professional strategists are telling him to “Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy” and it’s not a joke? Apparently not. They even gave him a nickname: Fake Vivek’ Or ‘Vivek the Fake.'” Is attacking someone nobody’s ever heard of supposed to make DeSantis look strong? It’s an exact replay of DeSantis’ fellow Floridian Marco Rubio’s 2016 strategy of attacking Chris Christie in New Hampshire instead of going after Trump in the hopes of winnowing the field. How did that work out for Rubio?

I have to admit I’m looking forward to watching these Republicans once again demonstrate their fecklessness for the whole country to see. There’s a reason why they have only had one popular vote since 1988 but they never change course. It makes sense that Trump was able to come in and sweep the GOP primary voters off their feet because the establishment keeps hyping these alleged superstars who turn out to be insufferable duds.

If the big donors and party establishment wanted to get Trump off the stage, maybe they should have come up with a new formula. This one has never worked, not once.

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