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Trump, But Competent?
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Trump, But Competent?

A DeSantis 2024 pre-mortem.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign rally on December 2, 2023, in Newton, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On Friday night, while normal people were off doing normal Friday night things, the hopeless political junkies congregated in The Dispatch Slack channel were chortling over this tweet.

If you want to convince your audience that you’re sincerely excited about something, it’s usually best not to point out up front that relevant rules and regulations require you to feign excitement about it. It’s the 2023 equivalent of Bush the elder reading “Message: I care” off his cue cards.

The tweet was a staff error, obviously. Somehow the instructions for ballot access in Colorado got copy-pasted into a post that was designed to comply with those instructions. Writer James Surowiecki sneered that it was “emblematic of [DeSantis’] entire mismanaged and misbegotten campaign,” which seemed a bit churlish.

What’s truly emblematic of the governor’s mismanaged and misbegotten campaign is the fact that the tweet was still available, uncorrected, more than 48 hours later.

A silly gaffe like that would have been less noteworthy had it come from a political operation that was running smoothly. But DeSantis’ super PAC, Never Back Down, is approaching week three of a very public meltdown amid disagreements over strategy that began when its chief strategist, Jeff Roe, reportedly accused one of its board members, Scott Wagner, of harboring a stick in a certain orifice. That accusation nearly led to a fistfight.

Soon after, the house-cleaning began.

Chris Jankowski, the CEO of Never Back Down, resigned. The group’s chairman, longtime DeSantis buddy Adam Laxalt, followed a week later. On Friday Jankowski’s replacement, interim CEO Kristin Davison, was fired over “management and personnel issues.” So were Erin Perrine, the group’s communications director, and Matthew Palmisano.

The new CEO—the third in 12 days—is Wagner, he of the alleged uncomfortably placed stick. How he plans to co-exist with Roe, the PAC’s star hired-gun consultant, is unclear. Perhaps Roe isn’t long for this political cycle either. “Who else can spend a hundred million dollars and drop half in the polls?” Nikki Haley asked recently of DeSantis, referring to Never Back Down’s enormous war chest. No doubt DeSantis has the same question for Roe.

The reasons for turmoil at the PAC remain murky (the governor and his inner circle reportedly are unhappy with the direction of its advertising) but are ultimately unimportant. What’s important is that an administrative bloodletting, replete with the creation of a second PAC to pick up the slack on advertising, isn’t typically the hallmark of a successful operation six weeks out from the Iowa caucuses. Frankly, it reeks of scapegoating by a campaign that’s bracing for the end and looking to shift blame from the candidate preemptively.

The implosion of Never Back Down means the time for a DeSantis 2024 pre-mortem has come.

A few days ago, Jonathan Chait flagged one of the great ironies of this election cycle. The guy who’s running as a sober, drama-free alternative to “chaos candidate” Donald Trump sure seems to have a lot of managerial chaos around him.

Certainly, between the two of them, Ron DeSantis is the more competent executive. He can discuss policy thoughtfully for longer than two sentences, for one thing, and he’s less chaotic than Trump in his personal conduct—a bar which, admittedly, most homo sapiens easily clear. He hasn’t been indicted for any felonies, let alone 91. You don’t need to worry about him paying off porn stars or starting a war with one of his tweets. He’s never attempted a coup.

A DeSantis presidency would assuredly involve less “drama” than a second Trump presidency would. But, strangely, of the three semi-credible candidates left in the Republican primary, the governor’s campaign has easily been the most “dramatic.” For all the hype about him being “Trump, but competent,” his operation has seemed less competent than you-know-who’s.

It was different for Trump in 2016. In that cycle he ran through three campaign managers (one of whom would ultimately require a presidential pardon to evade prison) and even added a campaign “chief executive” down the stretch en route to an unlikely victory. He showed up to most of the debates and turned them into a reality-show spectacle with yuuuuge ratings. There was never a dull moment. In this cycle, those rough waters have turned placid: Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita have run his operation without incident and the Trump-less debates are humdrum affairs. There’s never a moment that’s not dull—apart from the sporadic Truth Social posts about exterminating the “vermin,” I mean.

You can explain Trump’s evolution in various ways. Now that he’s a seasoned pro at campaigning, he runs a tighter ship. Or now that he’s surrounded by nothing but truly fanatic yes-men and cronies, there’s destined to be less friction inside his campaign. Or now that he’s transformed most of the Republican Party into a cult, he has no need to compete aggressively in the primary in the first place. His “campaign” is basically just him mumbling about “retribution” occasionally.

Yet the fact remains that Trump 2024, like Haley 2024, has functioned without organizational drama. If it’s drama you’re looking for, you need to turn to the candidate who dumped his campaign manager in August; who burned through donor money at such an unsustainable rate that his PAC had to go hat-in-hand to right-wing billionaires seeking another $50 million; and who’s “rebooted” his organization so many times that it’s hard to tell what number we’re on with the end of Never Back Down.

That’s not Trump. That’s “Trump, but competent.”

It’s not as surprising as it may seem. The rap on Ron DeSantis has always been that he’s insular to a fault, trusting his wife Casey and basically no one else. When he was fortunate enough to land an experienced adviser in Wiles for his first gubernatorial campaign, he ended up chasing her off (reportedly at Casey’s urging) under suspicions of leaking or of amassing too much influence or some such. He even allegedly blackballed Wiles by warning her lobbying firm that it would lose favor in Tallahassee if it didn’t ditch her.

That may explain why he turned to an underperforming hired gun like Roe to mastermind his presidential run: He just hadn’t built an infrastructure of loyal pros around him willing and able to help him take a campaign national. In fact, the candidate billed as “Trump, but competent” has arguably ruled his own political kingdom by fear and without charm to a greater degree than Trump himself has. When DeSantis finally needed some competent and influential friends in national Republican politics, he discovered he didn’t have many.

If he hasn’t been competent organizationally, he hasn’t been very competent strategically either.

DeSantis has run a strange hybrid campaign that’s equal parts “Cruz 2016” and “Twitter Troll 2023.” The New York Times wrote about the failure of his online operation back in October, recounting the numerous embarrassments it’s caused him—the disastrous buggy campaign announcement with Elon Musk on The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter, astroturfed videos featuring white-supremacist symbols created and promoted by his communications team, and general feebleness in counterprogramming Trump toadies bent on turning their guy into a punchline.

According to the Times, back in May the DeSantis camp invited a number of right-wing social media influencers to an event aiming to recruit them as surrogates. But there was a problem: “Mr. DeSantis’s advisers were defensive when asked about campaign strategy, they said, and struggled to come up with talking points beyond the vague notion of ‘freedom.’” Even then, even chatting with a friendly audience, they couldn’t articulate a clear rationale for populists to prefer the governor to Trump. All they knew was that they wanted to win the Twitter primary.

Result: The influencers ended up underwhelmed while the great mass of Republican voters doubtless ended up befuddled by much of the Very Online DeSantis 2024 messaging they encountered on social media.

Parallel to the “Twitter Troll” campaign was a more traditional operation being conducted in Iowa and, well, really just Iowa. DeSantis’ fans in New Hampshire have grumbled for months that he never put in enough face time with voters to create some distance in the polls between himself and Haley. He’s since faded to single digits and fourth place there, which makes him like Chris Christie insofar as both men have staked their entire campaigns on a single state in the vain hope that winning there will somehow catapult them into national contention. Christie is wagering on New Hampshire; DeSantis is now making the same wager about Iowa.

The problem is that we’ve been reminded repeatedly in the past 15 years that winning Iowa is no predictor of future primary success. Mike Huckabee won it in 2008—and lost New Hampshire and the nomination. Rick Santorum won it in 2012—and lost New Hampshire and the nomination. Ted Cruz, whose campaign was managed by Jeff Roe, won it in 2016—and lost New Hampshire and the nomination. In all three races, the candidate who did win New Hampshire went on to become the GOP’s nominee.

So why did Ron DeSantis decide to emulate that strategy instead of doing what Haley did by dividing her time more evenly between New Hampshire and Iowa? Haley, not the “Trump, but competent” candidate, is the one with a fully-formed early-state strategy; DeSantis’ “strategy” at this point is simply to rack up as many big-name Iowa endorsements as possible, visit all 99 counties, and wish upon a star that if he overperforms there on caucus night the results will do for him what they conspicuously failed to do for Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz.

The likely best-case scenario for him at this point, in other words, is that he does well in Iowa and then he and Haley split the Not Trump vote in New Hampshire, allowing Trump to win easily. Then it’s on to Haley’s home state of South Carolina, where DeSantis probably finishes, er, third.

This is the “competent” candidate?

There’s a big picture strategic critique of DeSantis as well, one we’ve revisited many times in this newsletter. Did the governor err fundamentally by running as “Trump, but competent” in the first place?

What if he had run as “conservative, but a little Trumpy” instead?

I may be the only person left in the commentariat who thinks DeSantis made the correct play by running as he did. Positioning himself as a hyperpopulist who would out-Trump Trump if elected president was a high-risk play, but it was potentially high-reward too: If it had succeeded in peeling off a chunk of Trump’s MAGA base, the image of Trump’s invincibility would have been shattered and the great mass of traditional Republican voters might have rallied around DeSantis as The Chosen One who had finally broken the cult.

The safer play would have been to run as a recognizably traditional conservative with populist touches. Be a little more supportive of Ukraine and vaccines, and a little less eager to use state power against political enemies. Keep some of the anti-woke stuff to impress Trumpier voters, but speak more forthrightly about Trump’s personal weaknesses—and much, much sooner during the campaign—instead of treating him as a sort of “frenemy” a la, well, Cruz 2016

That would have been a lower-risk strategy. By following it, DeSantis might have consolidated the traditionally conservative voters who were curious about him at the start of the primary but have since been put off and decamped to Haley. And if he had consolidated them, he’d likely be sitting considerably higher in the polls than he is now. Think 30 percent, perhaps, instead of 14.

The problem is that strategy is also lower-reward. Once he’s at 30 percent, how does he win?

By turning himself into more of a Nikki Haley figure and less of a Donald Trump, DeSantis would have irritated the populist voters who had grown to love his pugnacious culture-warring in Florida. In a primary in which Trump himself wasn’t running, perhaps the governor could have survived that; even the new, more Haley-esque DeSantis would still be the Trumpiest major candidate in a Trump-less race, after all.

But in a primary in which Donald Trump is also on the ballot? Those irritated populists would have written off a more mainstream DeSantis as a RINO sellout from the “uniparty” and gone back to the cult leader. To believe that the governor could have won as the “conservative, but a little Trumpy” alternative, you need to believe that a majority of the primary electorate would prefer a more traditionally conservative nominee to a populist—and not just any populist but Donald Trump himself.

I don’t believe it. In fact, I think if DeSantis had run as a traditional conservative and Trump had ended up dropping out for whatever reason, Ramaswamy might have become a serious threat to consolidate the post-liberal vote and possibly to contend for the nomination.

And that’s especially true if DeSantis had fulfilled Never Trumpers’ fantasy by attacking Trump as a demagogic crank who’s unfit for office after January 6 even if he ends up beating the rap on all 91 criminal charges, which he won’t. To call Trump unfit is to step inescapably toward a conclusion that renders the critic unviable as a candidate in the Republican Party.

I don’t think there’s any scenario realistically in which “conservative, but a little Trumpy” could have defeated Trump, especially once the indictments had begun and the nihilistic dregs of this party had united behind their leader. But I concede that it’s … tricky trying to make that argument when the high-risk high-reward strategy I favored has left DeSantis limping to Iowa and his super PAC in collapse.

If you want to attack his/my “Trump, but competent” strategy, let me suggest that this is a better way to do so: What evidence is there that Republican voters give a rip about competence?

And insofar as they do, what would lead DeSantis or me to think that they’re arriving at their understanding of “competent” government in any kind of considered way rather than by digesting whatever propaganda they’re being fed by right-wing media?

Ask the average Republican what they thought of Trump’s first term and they’ll tell you he was a great president, perhaps one of the greatest. Never mind COVID, never mind two impeachments, never mind the guy being comically at sea whenever he was asked to discuss policy: Certainly he qualifies as “competent,” Republican voters will say, particularly when compared to the incumbent.

DeSantis has his own successes as governor and even as a candidate to point to, starting with his laudable decision to keep Florida’s public schools open during the pandemic. His 19-point margin of victory last year was impressive, and despite the political tide running against him ever more strongly during this year’s campaign, he’s continued to work hard in Iowa and in the media to give himself a chance. Selling himself as a highly competent executive was a sensible message—if not quite as true as DeSantis-friendly media would have you believe.

It’s just that “Trump, but competent” is a contradiction in terms. In a party in which you’re all but required to believe in Trump’s greatness (and innocence) as a condition of membership, there’s no political space to run as a more competent alternative. DeSantis’ New Right fan base of post-liberal ideologues might swoon over his proactive culture-war agenda as governor, comparing it favorably to Trump’s achievements as president, but the average populist Republican voter must be perplexed by the argument.

Sure, it’s great that DeSantis took on Disney and critical race theory and the gays. But how does that make him more competent than one of America’s greatest presidents, the savior of the country?

If competence mattered even a little bit to Republican voters, the message of Trump’s campaign would have already been revealed as a catastrophic political error. For months, his opponents in the primary and even some of his allies in Congress have insisted that Americans are focused on the future, not on the past, and that they want their own policy grievances addressed, not the frontrunner’s personal grudges. (DeSantis made a variation of this argument as recently as Sunday.) Trump has ignored them at every turn, babbling manically about the rigged election of 2020 and vowing to his fans that he’ll be “your retribution” as president, and … he leads by 48 points. His lead has more than tripled since he was indicted in Manhattan at the end of March and started leaning heavily into his talking points about revenge.

I’m forever reluctant to shift blame for the Republican Party’s problems away from Republican voters. Because DeSantis is so unlikable, because his program is offensive to classical liberals, and because seeing hubristic people fail spectacularly is satisfying, we’ll all be tempted to do just that once he flames out of the race six weeks from now. He could have run a better campaign. (He could have.) He should have tried a different strategy. (He should have.) He would have been better off waiting until 2028. (Disagree, but okay.)

It’s all fair, but it’s all a coping mechanism for a harsh reality. The truth is that insofar as the cultishness of the American right may have weakened briefly after the party underperformed in the midterms under Trump’s leadership, his perceived martyrdom at the hands of the justice system this spring reinvigorated and strengthened it. Once it did, DeSantis had no chance. He’s not to blame—voters are.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.