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DeSantis Can’t Sell Trump Lite
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DeSantis Can’t Sell Trump Lite

Supporters of the former president care less about electability than vengeance.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives remarks at the Heritage Foundation's 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit on April 21, 2023, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Just a few months ago, the conventional wisdom was hardening around the idea that the Republican presidential nominating contest was a two-man race between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But from the looks of the latest poll from the Wall Street Journal, it’s more of a one-and-a-half-man situation, with Trump doubling up DeSantis 48 percent to 24 percent among potential Republican primary voters with no other candidate or potential candidate drawing more than 5 percent.

Woof.

The same poll shows that in a general election Trump would do substantially worse against President Joe Biden than DeSantis. But Republicans these days are not thinking about electability so much as they are about vengeance. Most Americans dread a repeat of the 2020 election, but lots of Republicans are eager for a do-over. Even the ones who accept the result as legitimate are prone to believe that if it hadn’t been for COVID restrictions, social media squelching of the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop, and whatever else, that Trump would have won.

The important thing about this grievance, like a lot of other self-destructive political beliefs, is that it is truth-adjacent. If it hadn’t been for COVID—specifically the way Trump bungled his response to it—he very well might have won a second term despite all of the scandals and chaos of his term. The fact that the election was as close as it was speaks volumes about how willing voters were to stick with Trump as opposed to challenger Biden. Without COVID or if Trump had risen to the challenge, we would probably now be discussing whether Republican heir apparent Vice President Mike Pence could go the distance and which of the cavalcade of Democratic contenders—many young upstarts—would survive the wild ride ahead of them.

Instead, Biden is so far cruising to renomination and Republicans are still stuck in 2020. “I am your retribution,” Trump has promised his voters, and they are ready to get some blood on their hands—figuratively, of course—to help him. And the prosecution of Trump for financial disclosure crimes in New York is just the latest wrong they want to avenge. This is the Trump way, and lots of Republicans love it.

So what’s the DeSantis response? Speaking in Washington today to the Heritage Foundation, a political action shop that’s one of the big movers on the nationalist right, DeSantis offered an increasingly familiar litany of culture war clickbait lines. He even answered the barbs from Trump world that the Florida man opts for cowboy boots to elevate his sub-6-foot stature.  

As I wrote a couple of weeks back, it’s all very Ted Cruz-y, which is to say, not very effective. Trump voters do not love him for his policies, they love him for his cruelty, his showmanship, his sense of humor, his celebrity. Offering those same voters the same policies in a boring, stacked-heel package on the basis of “electability” or policy gains misunderstands the current state of the GOP. MAGA voters don’t want Trumpism without Trump—whichever changeable version of Trump policies, real or imagined, that means. They want the real thing, and that means a 2020 do-over. 

As DeSantis wraps up his ill-conceived and poorly executed week of Washington visits, he finds himself without an obvious reason for his candidacy. The big donors who bought the Trumpism-without-Trump poppycock are now coming to terms that it wasn’t a two-man race after all. And as the GOP establishment starts increasingly lining up behind Trump again, it’s not likely to get there any time soon. And with DeSantis stuck in the aftermath of the controversies that helped propel his national fame in the first place, we see how wide the opportunities are for other contenders.

DeSantis may end up being the candidate who goes the distance with Trump. But to get there, he’s got to stop fishing in the same pool as the guy he wants to beat. If the Republican electorate is as MAGAriffic as Team DeSantis believes, the race is over before it has begun. 

Trump is the incumbent Republican presidential nominee. No doubt, beating an incumbent is hard—even harder in a primary than a general—but it doesn’t happen when voters opt for a watered-down version of the real thing. If it’s going to happen, it will be, like the woman said, a choice, not an echo. 


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 41.4%
Average disapproval: 54.8%
Net score: -13.4 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.8 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 2.6 points

[Average includes: CBS News: 43% approve-57% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 38% approve-57% disapprove; Fox News: 44% approve-56% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 43% approve-50% disapprove; Reuters/Ipsos: 39% approve-54% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: THEN, NOW, ANON 

National Review: “Here we find the magic of the plays. As the late Harold Bloom once put it, ‘you can bring absolutely anything to Shakespeare and the plays will light it up, far more than what you bring will illuminate the plays.’ Whenever we read Shakespeare’s words, they seem narrowly aimed at us, amplifying whatever mood we are in. Indeed, the same passages can speak to us in contradictory ways at different moments in our lives. … How does it work, this sorcery? Part of the answer is that we know a lot about Shakespeare as a writer, but almost nothing about him as a man. … He is endlessly dappled, infinitely nuanced, arguing both sides of a case better than their actual partisans. … Why do we know so much about Shakespeare as a writer? Largely because of a heroic act of posthumous printing that happened precisely 400 years ago. In 1623, two of Shakespeare’s former theatrical colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, produced what is surely the greatest compilation in human history.”


BIDEN GEARS UP FOR REELECTION ANNOUNCEMENT

New York Times: “Advisers and allies are weighing how soon the president should set in motion a re-election operation—an announcement that will surprise no one but will signal the start of a challenging new phase of his presidency. … [T]here has been increasing discussion among the broader Biden team about the notion of a low-key video announcement on April 25, the fourth anniversary of his entrance to the 2020 race. … What is clear is that any external pressure that Mr. Biden and his team once felt to formally enter the 2024 race has mostly evaporated. … Money is at the center of the timing conversation. Delaying will postpone building a war chest for the general election.” 

Bundlers convening in D.C.: New York Times: “Top donors to President Biden have received a last-minute invitation to travel to Washington at the end of next week to see Mr. Biden as he gears up for a 2024 campaign. … Invitations are going out to some of the biggest donors and bundlers for Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign—those who donated or raised at least $1 million. … The event, which is not a fund-raiser, is seen as an effort to rally donors before what is expected to be an expensive 2024 run. … Two governors who have previously been top Democratic fund-raisers, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, have also been invited because of their past fund-raising.”

Dems unsure if DeSantis or Trump is softer 2024 opponent: NBC News: “Democrats are torn on which of the two Republican front-runners they would rather face in the 2024 presidential election. … The conventional wisdom among many in the party is that President Joe Biden would have better odds in a rematch against Trump. … Plus, the thinking goes, DeSantis’ relative youth presents a tougher contrast for Biden, and the Florida governor’s unknowability on the national stage means Democrats can’t simply dust off a winning playbook against him. … But another group of Democrats sees DeSantis as the easier candidate to beat. Trump has strengths that DeSantis doesn’t, they say: Trump is more charismatic, better at retail politics and has a unique ability to stir up GOP voters and get them to the polls that the Florida governor hasn’t proved he can do on the big stage.”

White House doubles down after McCarthy’s debt proposal: NPR: “The White House is standing firm on its insistence that raising the debt limit be kept separate from talks about federal spending, President Biden’s chief of staff Jeff Zients said in an interview. Zients made his comments after Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy released a legislative framework that would raise the debt limit for a year while cutting spending to 2022 levels. McCarthy urged Biden to negotiate to avoid defaulting on the debt—something that is expected to happen in early summer unless Congress raises the limit. … Zients said Republicans were being irresponsible by ‘tying two things together that should never be tied together’—the debt limit and budget discussions.”

MCCONNELL BATTLES CLUB FOR GROWTH OVER SENATE PICKS Politico: “The Club is positioning itself against the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the three states that are most key to retaking the majority: West Virginia, Montana and Ohio. Privately some top party operatives and McConnell-aligned strategists worry the Club’s recruits, who are typically conservative hardliners, could struggle to win competitive races. … In West Virginia, the Club announced it will spend at least $10 million to boost Republican Rep. Alex Mooney just as GOP recruiters are on the cusp of convincing the wealthy and popular Gov. Jim Justice to run. In Montana, the group is nudging Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, who lost to Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in 2018, to make another go while the NRSC has been heavily recruiting Tim Sheehy, a Navy SEAL and wealthy businessperson.”

Montana GOP tables primary bill aimed at toppling Tester: AP: “A proposed change to next year’s Montana U.S. Senate primary that was aimed at undermining Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s reelection chances is likely dead after a state legislative committee shelved the GOP-backed measure Wednesday. Some Republican lawmakers urged on by a GOP lobbyist wanted to alter Montana’s 2024 Senate primary so that only the top two candidates, no matter their party, would advance to the November election. That would have effectively blocked out third-party candidates, who Republicans blamed for draining away potential GOP votes during past attempts to unseat Tester.”

Grassroot Dems ditch Sinema, Manchin: Wall Street Journal: “Small donors have largely abandoned Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin as they have strayed from the Democratic Party, although they are attracting larger donors with ties to a centrist organization, new fundraising reports show. Ms. Sinema of Arizona and Mr. Manchin of West Virginia each raised less than 1% of their campaign money between Jan. 1 and March 31 from donors who gave $200 or less.  Those are among the lowest percentages in the Senate—and well below their previous grassroots fundraising levels. … Small donors have become a vital fundraising base for many candidates and often are seen as a proxy for enthusiasm. The question for Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchin is whether voters next fall will also desert them.” 

DEBT CEILING DANCE STEPS

CNN: “White House officials have spent weeks engaged in skirmishes with House Republicans over the looming debt ceiling battle. Those skirmishes have now expanded into an all-out war. President Joe Biden’s economic speech in Maryland on Wednesday, which leveled a series of policy and political attacks at House Republicans, serves as a critical marker for a White House moving quickly to escalate the political pressure on House Republicans as the calendar moves closer to the deadline to raise the nation’s borrowing limit. … The positions of the two sides remain unchanged – and completely incompatible. … The irreconcilable positions underscore the central importance of winning the political and messaging battle that is set to dramatically intensify.”

BRIEFLY

GOP supermajorities hamstring Dem governors—Politico

Red-state voters approve of their legislatures’ anti-trans bills—FiveThirtyEight

GOP primary to unseat Kentucky’s Beshear turns nasty—Politico

WITHIN EARSHOT: A POX ON BOTH HOUSES?

“In America, we don’t tell people to resign because they got shingles.”—California Rep. Ted Lieu defends Senator Dianne Feinstein’s refusal to step down.


MAILBAG

“I am at a loss for why crime in our cities is becoming a national political issue to which Joe Biden and the Democrats will have to answer in the coming elections.  You mentioned the issue tangentially when addressing the Chicago selection for the Democratic convention, so you must see it as a valid political point as well.  I understand why people are concerned with the increase in crime, and why an opposing party would use it as an opportunity to criticize an incumbent politician … BUT it’s just not a national issue.  Sure, if Joe Biden was the Portland mayor or the Chicago district attorney, then it all would make perfect sense.  But realistically how would the most ‘get tough on crime’ Republican president actually lower the crime rate in San Francisco, California, or Newark, New Jersey?  Local progressive leadership certainly can be a justifiable target for such criticism, but blaming the U.S. president makes no sense to me other than as an intentionally misdirected political attack.”—Ken Levine, Lionville, Pennsylvania

I always chuckle when I hear presidents say “we created a bajillion jobs. …” They never say that when the recession comes and the jobs are lost. Like the economy, presidents have a limited role to play in law enforcement and crime: The Department of Justice is a major driver of policy, but to lesser extents so are other agencies from Health and Human Services to Interior to Education. As you observe, though, cities and states have a great deal more to do with setting the policies that directly affect crime. The thing is, though, that the other big drivers of crime aren’t under the control of ANY politician. Demographic, economic, social, cultural, and technological trends are mostly beyond the reach of what any person or group can control. But that won’t stop politicians from taking credit or placing blame around the issue. Indeed, Biden has made crime a repeated focus of his career, particularly in his time as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has often taken partial credit for the decline of crime rates that began in the 1990s, so the turnabout is probably inevitable. 

“Do you think there is any hope for my two favorite candidates, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott? I know that traditionally, the ticket should have geographic balance, but I sure would be excited to support Haley and Scott together. I wouldn’t care which one got the top of the ticket. Scott/Haley or Haley/Scott would be great.”—Jody Van Ness, Coatesville, Pennsylvania

With almost a year to go, it’s early enough for almost anyone to have at least some hope of winning the Republican nomination, particularly a senator or former governor of a key state in the process. South Carolina has chosen the eventual winner of the Republican nomination in every year but one, Newt Gingrich in 2012, since the contest was established in 1980. Whoever wins the Palmetto State next year, it’s easy to see how big a role Scott and Haley may play in the process. Even if they don’t win the crown, they could play kingmaker. When it comes to which of them is better positioned, Scott seems to have the clear advantage for now. Haley’s various, awkward stances on her former boss, Donald Trump, and a series of missteps, including her campaign’s recent embarrassment around fundraising reports, shows a candidate struggling to find a place. Scott, on the other hand, is enjoying the benefits of being the new kid in town. But it won’t be long before he starts facing the kind of scrutiny that often makes good-on-paper candidacies like his crumple. He’s got real political gifts and has tremendous appeal for conservatives looking for a directional change for their party, but as he reaches for the next rung on the ladder, he will do so with lots of new detractors in a party that had previously been very friendly toward him. As for them running on the same ticket, the chances are low not just because of geographical considerations but because they are ideologically, attitudinally similar candidates. If a conservative like Scott or Haley were to win the top spot, they’d be a strong push to unite the party by picking a nationalist and/or a populist as running mate. If Trump or another nationalist wins the presidential nomination, then the pressure would work in the other direction, in which case, Scott, Haley, or another conservative would be needed for a unity ticket. Given how deep the animosities between Republicans are running these days, finding a suitable running mate will probably be both very difficult and very important. Then there’s this: Because of a constitutional quirk, if they ran together, one of them would have to establish residency in another state before the general election or else risk missing out on their home state’s nine electoral votes. Dick Cheney decamped from Texas to Wyoming before the 2000 election for the same purpose. But that’s a very minor consideration compared to the problem of their similarities as candidates.


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the gimlet-eyed Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: TOOT YOUR OWN HORN 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) accompanied by Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson (center) and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker during an event to announce Chicago as the host city for the 2024 Democratic National Convention on April 12, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) accompanied by Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson (center) and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker during an event to announce Chicago as the host city for the 2024 Democratic National Convention on April 12, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

I feel like I should get credit for all of the funny but too-dirty or too-mean submissions that I manfully resist each week. Given that I have a sense of humor less sophisticated than my ninth grader, I don’t know that you people understand the restraint involved. I say all that in hopes that you will forgive one this week that was just too good to let slip away: perfect for the photo, succinct, and hilarious. I regret nothing.

Winner:

“Okay! Now you pull MY finger!”—Ben Lewis, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Winner, the Wieners Circle Division:

“I’m not kidding.  He did it in one bite.”—Bill Ward, St. Augustine Beach, Florida

Winner, Second City Sméagol Division:

“Stupid, fat hobbitses. They steals the Precious from our finger.”—Zachary Gleit, East Hampton, New York

Winner, Na-Na-Na, Na-Na-Na, Na-Na, Na-Na-Na Division: 

“What a night it really was.

What a fight it really was.

Glory be!”—Nathan Wurtzel, South Riding, Virginia

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


THE CLAAAAWWWW… 

AP: “A 13-year-old boy had to be freed from a claw machine after he climbed inside hoping to score a prize, according to an official at a North Carolina amusement park. Carowinds officials were alerted … that the boy was inside the Cosmic XL Bonus Game, which contained plush prizes, according to Courtney C. McGarry Weber, a spokesperson for the park south of Charlotte. The medical response team unlocked the machine and the boy was able to get out, she said. He was treated and released from first aid to his guardian. The boy has been banned from the park for one year for attempted theft, Weber said.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.