Voices: Down and out: How DeSantis tried to fight on two fronts – and cowered in both

DeSantis survived only the first round of the GOP primary and caucus cycle  (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
DeSantis survived only the first round of the GOP primary and caucus cycle (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Shortly before Ron DeSantis posted a disappointing second-place finish in Iowa, his old friend and colleague from Congress Francis Rooney told me the Florida governor’s major problem and why he could not knock off Donald Trump.

“Trump’s base support kind of doubled when they started all these indictments,” Mr Rooney, former congressman and US Ambassador to the Vatican told me.

Conversely, Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa evangelical kingmaker, told me shortly before the caucuses that DeSantis “needs to convince those who are supporting Nikki Haley, ‘listen, you want an alternative to Trump? I’m your guy’. And he needs to convince the Trump voters – ‘Hey, if you want all the good of Trump, but without all the drama, then I’m your guy.’”

These quotes offer the perfect excuses for why a candidate who had won re-election by double digits in the former swing state of Florida and at 45, became the conservative golden boy that the right had dubbed “America’s governor” amid his decision to keep his state open during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It also excuses the fact that Mr DeSantis, a notoriously aloof but wonky former congressman who failed to distinguish himself during his tenure in the House, never came off as particularly personable. It elides the numerous stories about him being awkward and, of course, the pudding fingers.

But there’s another quote, one from wrestling great Ric Flair, that encapsulates why Mr DeSantis never really caught fire and why he ended his 2024 White House run with a whimper on Sunday: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

And for all intents and purposes, Mr Trump was the man and instead of throwing a punch, the retired Navy veteran who had a super PAC dubbed Never Back Down never seemed to want to get in the ring with the former president. Conversely, he seemed to ignore the rise of Ms Haley – the charismatic and affable former governor of South Carolina – until it was far too late for him.

While Mr Trump began attacking, the Florida governor – who seemed to relish attacking everyone from the press to transgender people to Mickey Mouse – seemed terrified to utter his former political benefactor’s name. Rather, he banked on the same failed strategy that Ted Cruz made in the 2016 Republican primary (and indeed, he shared many advisers with the Texas Republican): present himself as the most right-wing Trump alternative and wait for the big guy to implode so he could lap up the supporters.

That moment never came. Mr DeSantis’s boosters may find succour in the idea that he never stood a chance once the first indictment hit Mr Trump. But that gives Mr DeSantis’s cowardice too much credit.

Instead he only briefly alluded to Mr Trump right before the former president’s indictment in Manhattan when he said “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” before he immediately said that he would not help with the extradition of the former president from his Florida residency.

A few months later, during Mr Trump’s second indictment, Mr DeSantis and Mr Trump both spoke at the North Carolina Republican Party’s gathering. The NCGOP is full of “country club” Republicans who should have been friendly terrain, but instead, Mr DeSantis bemoaned the “weaponising” of the Department of Justice and the FBI.

That, more than Mr Trump’s actual indictment, sandbagged Mr DeSantis’s chances; if Mr DeSantis and Mr Trump were indistinguishable on policy – and Mr DeSantis actually went further to the right than Mr Trump on everything from abortion to vaccines – and Mr Trump’s legal troubles were not a demerit against him, then the case for Mr DeSantis evaporated.

But if his Trump timidity weakened Mr DeSantis, his decision to go all-in hard-right policy – from signing legislation restricting education about gender identity and sexual orientation and retaliating against Disney, to a six-week abortion ban – revealed a chink in his armor. Many donors who represented the anti-Trump wing of the party, and more importantly, had deep wallets, found his pursuit of those hard-right policies to be too unsavoury for them. Eric Levine, a Republican donor, told me in August that, “he just seems to be fighting with Disney,” and “ he's not trying to be the counter to the alternative to Trump. He's trying to be the substitute for Trump.”

Donors turning off the spigot for him and pouring money into Ms Haley’s coffers might have been why he tried to paint her as in the pocket of elites – no one has more rage than someone who thinks they are owed money.

Indeed, the fact Ms Haley could get into the race and provide an alternative to the supposed Trump alternative that was Mr DeSantis, reveals a lack of boldness on his part. Mr DeSantis failed to get into the race until May, while Ms Haley jumped in the fire during February of last year.

Where Mr DeSantis cowered from attending CPAC last year, Ms Haley attended knowing she would be entering the Trump lion’s den. Where Ms Haley often was willing to mix it up with her fellow Republicans on the debate stage, particularly businessman and conspiracy theorist Vivek Ramaswamy, and saw her poll numbers shoot up, Mr DeSantis, a former Yale baseball player, refused to even swing most of the time.

That indecisiveness and unwillingness to make the case to non-Trump Republicans ultimately failed him and now he has nothing to show for his campaign.

Of course, Mr DeSantis had plenty of other shortcomings, such as his awkwardness, infighting between his advisers, his over-reliance on super PACs rather than TV ads. Mr DeSantis loves to reference a phrase from Reagan about raising a “banner of bold colors – no pale pastels.” But ultimately, the only colour on his banner that anyone saw was his white flag of surrender on too many fronts. His unwillingness to beat the man left him tapping out in humiliation.