Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' new book "The Courage To Be Free," is offered for sale at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Sunday, March 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

This week, Politico’s Florida correspondent Gary Fineout reported a “rumbling” that Governor Ron DeSantis “isn’t ready to run for president and may wait things out,” but in all likelihood, remains “on the path to running for president.” 

DeSantis should heed the rumblings. 

The second-term Republican released his book, The Courage to Be Free, on February 28 and embarked on a national book tour with the obvious intent to stir public interest in a presidential bid. The rollout appeared successful, with plenty of news coverage and reports of gangbuster first-week sales. But everything that has happened since, including DeSantis’s backtracking on his Ukraine-is-not-a-strategic-interest comments, Disney outfoxing him, and Donald Trump’s indictment, has overshadowed the book and shrunken the 44-year-old’s stature.  

The proof is in the polls. Since the book launch, the Real Clear Politics average of Republican presidential primary polls shows Trump’s margin over DeSantis widening from 16 to 27 points.  

After the book tour bust, it’s gut-check time for DeSantis. Should he go forth and treat this period as the rough patch that many winning presidential campaigns weather before enjoying their comeback? Or should he recognize that this is the beginning of what many losing presidential campaigns experience when voters aren’t buying what the candidate is selling, and get out? 

The arguments for getting in are seemingly straightforward. One is, don’t end up like Chris Christie.  

DeSantis himself, according to a Washington Post article from September 2022, reportedly believes that the New Jersey governor “missed his moment” in 2012. Back then, Christie was a gleefully pugnacious chief executive, swarmed by national buzz, who upended assumptions of how Republicans could flip blue states. But not having completed a single term as governor, Christie concluded he wasn’t ready for the presidency and passed on the presidential race. By the time he did run in 2016, conservative hardliners had grown skeptical of his ideological bearings and flocked to an even more gleefully pugnacious northeasterner. DeSantis has reason to worry that if he waits as Christie did, he’ll be old news by 2028. 

Another reason to run, even if there is a significant risk of losing, is that a valiant defeat in a Republican primary now can help earn the pole position later. Bob Dole was outmaneuvered by George H. W. Bush in 1988 but coasted in 1996. John McCain came up short against George W. Bush in 2000, then romped in 2008, besting Mitt Romney, who then outlasted the field in 2012. Among post-World War II presidents, the majority ran at least once before winning—Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Joe Biden. Better to solidify your national profile by getting on the field than by sitting on the sidelines. 

Beyond the historical carpe diem arguments, the premise of a DeSantis candidacy rests on the notion that today’s Republican Party is not quite Trump’s party but is a Trumpist party—one that wields government power to punish political enemies and views the world through the dark lens of “America First.” And so, DeSantis will naturally attract Trump voters with the organic appeal of his own Trumpist record.  

The historical arguments don’t hold up because they rely on examples from the pre-Trump Republican Party. 

Several fresh-faced candidates in the 2016 campaign were presumably poised to capitalize on their respective moments. First-term Senator Ted Cruz of Texas became nationally heralded by combative conservatives after instigating a government shutdown in hopes of defunding the Affordable Care Act. Kentucky’s Rand Paul, another from that Senate class, announced his bid shortly after being dubbed by Time as the “Most Interesting Man in Politics” for his eclectic libertarianism. A third peer, Florida’s Marco Rubio, was christened “The Republican Savior” by Time for his theoretical appeal to Latino voters.  

What happened to them? They all got viciously humiliated by Trump. Are they poised to redeem themselves in the 2024 presidential primary? No, they’re lucky to still have their Senate seats. Cruz and Rubio tested the presidential waters again with trips to early primary states, froze their toes, and passed on another run. Nearly every other battered and bruised also-ran in the 2016 field, such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina, has since retired from elective politics.  

Several days ago, Trump posted on his social media website that if DeSantis runs, “he will lose the cherished and massive MAGA vote, and never be able to successfully run for office again.” That may be another example of Trump’s incessant boasting, but in this case, he has some receipts.  

And if DeSantis thought his record would be enough for Trump voters to transfer their loyalties to him, the past month has been a brutal collision with reality. During his book promotion tour in mid-March, DeSantis was asked by Piers Morgan to describe “the differences” between himself and Trump. DeSantis actually answered, presumably on the belief that it behooved him to answer. “I would have fired somebody like [Dr. Anthony] Fauci,” he said, alluding to his own quick abandonment of lockdowns during the pandemic. Then he made an implicit contrast of leadership styles: “I get personnel in the government who have the agenda of the people, and share our agenda … The way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board.” 

That answer summed up DeSantis’s pitch: He’s a more competent version of Trump. But that is only a compelling argument if Trump voters are craving competency. Trump quickly shot back, not with a defense of his governing acumen, but with a reminder of his legal predicament: “While I am fighting against Radical Left Lunatics, Persecutors, and unfair Prosecutors who want to destroy us all, Ron DeSanctimonious is not working for the people of Florida as he should be, he is too busy chatting with a Ratings Challenged TV Host from England, desperately trying to rescue his failing Campaign.” Soon after, Trump got indicted, and his poll numbers among Republicans soared.  

Moreover, DeSantis’s claim of putting points on the board was undercut when Disney took some points off. DeSantis included an entire chapter of his book chronicling his fight with the beloved behemoth after the company’s CEO criticized DeSantis’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, because it showed how far he was willing to use government power to wage a culture war. Florida had long given Disney control of a special governing district so the company could manage Walt Disney World—the most visited vacation resort in the world— with a free hand. To retaliate, DeSantis and the Republican state legislature supplanted the special district with their own, stacked with DeSantis appointees. However, before the changeover was implemented, the lame-duck district members—in a public meeting that the book-shilling DeSantis didn’t realize was happening—signed a contract giving away most of the board’s powers to Disney. DeSantis is now gamely trying to keep up the legal fight, but getting outmaneuvered did not strengthen his case for unrivaled competency.  

The ultimate question of the 2024 Republican presidential primary is whether the GOP is Trump’s GOP. There’s a simple argument that it is. As it stands, he has over 50 percent support in the Real Clear Politics primary poll average. Even when he gets indicted, the party rallies around him. If that dynamic is not going to change, then there is no rational reason to run against him in the presidential primary. Let him have 2024 and try to pick up the pieces in 2028. 

The counterargument is that the level of Trump’s immovable bedrock support remains below 50 percent. Before the 2022 midterm, Trump stood at 51.8 percent in the RCP primary poll average. Then after several of Trump’s election-denier endorsees lost swing state races, Trump’s standing with Republican primary voters dipped, down to 43 percent by mid-March. (His RCP average only popped up above 50 percent again after the indictment.) Therefore, this is not fundamentally Trump’s party, and not even necessarily a Trumpist party. The Republican Party is a divided party, one that someone not named Trump could not just win, but shape. If that’s the case, then you should not just run, but run hard. You take the fight to Trump. You stand up for Ukraine. You stand up to dictators, not just Xi Jinping but also Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. You reject the weaponization of government to punish political opponents and undermine the sanctity of elections. You call for a return to traditional conservatism. Most of all, you don’t help Trump beat back his indictments, meekly allowing him to grow his support while in dire legal jeopardy. You pound him as a walking liability, who will almost surely drag down the GOP in 2024, as he did in 2022, 2020, and 2018. 

But DeSantis, and apparently most everyone else running or considering a presidential run, believes there are too many Trumpist Republicans to attack Trump directly. This is self-defeating logic. Even if Trump starts with support from nearly half of the party—enough to win pluralities in multi-candidate primary contests, like he did in 2016—then the job of the rival candidate is to change voters’ minds and take away Trump’s support. That can’t be done with passive-aggressive slights. Only with fully aggressive carpet bombing.  

According to a recent Washington Post report, DeSantis is “lying low” for now but will eventually “engage with Trump on policy rather than trade insults and employ name-calling — for instance, by rebutting the former president’s criticisms of how DeSantis handled the pandemic and taking aim at Trump’s own record on the issue.” Huh? That’s what DeSantis just did, and it got him nowhere. If DeSantis is not willing to take the fight to Trump, for fear of alienating his voters, then he should follow that logic to its inevitable conclusion. The best way to not alienate Trump voters is not to run against Trump. Then in 2028, when DeSantis will turn just 50 years old, he can run for real, maybe even with Trump’s blessing.  

Of course, many Americans, including some Republicans, do not want so much deference to Trump. Ideally, some Republican of stature will try to excise this malignant tumor from the party. If DeSantis won’t do it because he is comfortable leading a Trumpist party, then he should get out of the way and let someone else try, both for his own future and for ours.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.