Florida’s governor has to turn the other cheek for the next two years
by David Silverberg
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida wants everyone to just chill.
“We just finished this election, okay?” an exasperated DeSantis told a crowd during an appearance Wednesday, Nov. 16, in the devastated Lee County community of Matlacha. “People just need to chill out a little bit on some of this stuff, I mean seriously. We just ran an election.”
DeSantis was addressing the agitation caused by former President Donald Trump’s announcement of his 2024 presidential candidacy the night before.
DeSantis would certainly like everyone to chill out; it’s in his political interest. But that’s not likely for a number of reasons.
The terrible twos
Anyone who has ever been in the position of anticipating a future promotion contingent on someone else’s departure or retirement knows the feeling.
Imagine that you’ve been anointed the next chief executive or manager (or editor) of a business. The promotion seems nearly certain but there’s the tortuous interval until it occurs. Anything can upset the apple cart: you might screw things up with a dumb remark; your enemies or competitors are circling to stop you; your boss may change his mind; the whole situation may alter; or the company could go completely belly-up. What’s more, you still have to do your existing job well without any mistakes or foul-ups while carefully maneuvering toward your goal.
For DeSantis, the opportunity to be the Republican nominee—not president, nominee—is two years away and that is an agonizingly long time in politics.
Right now DeSantis is riding high off his undeniably overwhelming election victory. He’s being hailed as the leader of the national Republican Party, he’s being praised and lauded; he’s the golden child of the donor class.
DeSantis is at a peak. The problem is that the peak is two years too soon.
Because of his prominence, DeSantis is now everyone’s target: Democrats, Republicans, members of Congress, partisans of all kinds and just about anyone who doesn’t want to see him become president has him in their sights. He’s the guy to beat.
And there is one person who looms above and beyond all other rivals and impediments and lives a mere 420 miles away from Tallahassee in the same great sun-drenched state.
Donald vs. Ronald
No matter how much the media may dismiss him, Rupert Murdoch may diminish him, Ivanka may avoid him and Merrick Garland may indict him, it’s clear that in Donald Trump’s head he’s a real, serious and viable candidate for president in 2024.
For Trump, DeSantis appeared as a rival for a long time and he began taking potshots early, culminating in his “Ron DeSanctimonious” insult delivered on Nov. 5. Trump has threatened to release damaging information and called him “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations,” [capitalization, of course, his] which to Trump is a killing blow right there.
Given that a leopard can’t change his spots and Trump can’t tame his tongue, the public can expect Trump to keep intensifying his insults, his threats and his attacks as he tries to tear down the man who was once his apprentice but who now looms as his overlord. In fact, his fulminations are likely to intensify the more desperate he becomes. Indeed, Trump may succeed in peeling away some of DeSantis’ luster and turning some of the most fanatical Florida Trumpers against the governor.
No doubt DeSantis would like to answer in kind but he can’t, for several reasons.
One is that DeSantis is not an announced candidate for president and likely won’t be until the summer of 2024, when he formally gets the Republican nomination for president. Florida has a “resign to run law” that would require him to step down.
Title IX, Chapter 99, Section 99.012 of the Florida Statutes states: (2) No person may qualify as a candidate for more than one public office, whether federal, state, district, county, or municipal, if the terms or any part thereof run concurrently with each other. (3)(a) No officer may qualify as a candidate for another state, district, county, or municipal public office if the terms or any part thereof run concurrently with each other without resigning from the office he or she presently holds. (b) The resignation is irrevocable.
Under current law, DeSantis can’t be both governor and presidential candidate, no matter how obvious his intention to seek the presidency.
However, given the long lead time to the presidential race and DeSantis’ absolute and unrestricted rule over a supine Florida legislature, it is not inconceivable that the legislature could change the law to benefit DeSantis before 2024.
Until that happens, though, DeSantis has to remain unannounced and just take the slings and arrows that his enemy hurls at him. No wonder he wants everyone to chill: it’s in his interest to avoid a presidential contest until the moment he steps onto the stage of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee to accept the nomination in the late summer of 2024—and irrevocably resigns as governor of Florida.
Additionally, the presidential race will be a huge distraction from doing his day job for the next two years. As it stands, Trump is going to be throwing brickbats and abuse every hour of every day or at least whenever his attention turns to the governor. No matter how low Trump’s own status goes, DeSantis has to deal with Trump’s unrelenting efforts to seize the media spotlight and block his path to the presidency.
But DeSantis has his comforts. Trump will be tied up in investigations and possible criminal indictments, so he will be distracted by that. If DeSantis is lucky, Trump will self-destruct or implode or—rather unlikely—actually be punished for his transgressions. At the least he’ll be mired in legal proceedings. If all goes well, DeSantis will only have to sit back and watch.
So if DeSantis had his druthers, everyone would forget about the presidency until the most propitious possible moment in 2024.
George Conway, husband of Trump White House advisor Kellyanne Conway and a fierce Twitter critic of the president his wife served, has suggested that DeSantis just sit out the 2024 race and run in 2028. After all, DeSantis would only be 50 years old then, still in the prime of life.
While that makes sense from a purely political calculation, it overlooks several factors.
One is momentum. DeSantis right now is on a roll. He’s the great white hope, the favored alternative, the triumphant warrior and MAGA knight in shining armor. He’s Trumpism with a human face. For him to suddenly declare his disinterest in the coming contest would be to squander and dissipate all that energy and hope—which he might never recover. American history is littered with politicians who waited to seize their opportunity only to see their chances pass by.
Second, at the moment his likely presidential opponent is President Joe Biden who will be 81 years old in 2024. Biden has never achieved high approval ratings and is not likely to do so in the future. He will be further weakened by two years of unremitting investigations and attacks from House Republicans. If Biden is the candidate in 2024, he’s someone DeSantis has a reasonable chance of defeating. If DeSantis waits until 2028, there’s no telling who his opponent might be. Furthermore, given a volatile and increasingly unpredictable world, it’s difficult to anticipate the circumstances of the 2028 election.
Third, DeSantis won reelection with a massive war chest of $200 million. The donors who contributed to that fund weren’t just contributing to a governor of Florida; they were investing in the next president of the United States. Nor were they investing in a 2028 president, they were investing for two years from now. These donors are a powerful force in DeSantis’ base, if one that’s out of public sight. It’s hard to imagine that these donors aren’t encouraging and, when necessary, pressuring DeSantis to run—and those are voices DeSantis can’t ignore.
Lastly, DeSantis himself is not a wait-around kind of guy, no matter how calm he’s trying to be. He’s aggressive and impatient and willing to test boundaries.
For all these reasons, a DeSantis delay appears unlikely. It’s safe to bet that the contest is on for 2024.
The physical threat
Given Trump’s propensity for excusing, encouraging and inciting violence, this is an issue that has to be seriously considered in evaluating a Trump-DeSantis rivalry.
After all, Trump incited an insurrection at the US Capitol and encouraged a mob to try to lynch his Vice President. One of his adherents nearly killed Paul Pelosi with a hammer when he couldn’t break the kneecaps of the Speaker of the House. He’s also the man who said he could get away with shooting someone in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.
It is not beyond the realm of serious possibility that Trump could attempt to have DeSantis murdered or inspire his more ardent followers to attempt to kill the governor. Physical violence is always a danger in heated political contests but not since the Civil War has the threat been so immediate and real, with a prominent public individual encouraging it.
Clearly, DeSantis could be removed by physical means to Trump’s benefit. Until Trump makes a seemingly sincere, unambiguous and very public statement condemning and abhorring all violence, DeSantis and his entire family will be in danger from Trump and his extremist followers.
Given that he created a state military force answerable only to himself, one presumes that DeSantis’ “Flaetorian” Guard will keep him safe and whole for the next two years. But that safety and security is not to be taken for granted.
Taking the hits
So for the next two years DeSantis may have to be a bit of a punching bag rather than a boxer. He has to take the hits his main rival delivers without hitting back as an announced candidate. For a vigorous and aggressive politician, that’s hard to do. No doubt he’ll land some snide and snarky punches of his own. However, delivering a real knockout blow might offend the Trumper fanatics who will otherwise come to DeSantis’ corner if they have no other choice.
It also bears remembering that while Trump may be the most prominent DeSantis rival he’s far from the only one. There’s also Gov. Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, with whom DeSantis has dueled using migrant asylum seekers as pawns. In his own state there’s the badly damaged Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), whose presidential ambitions could flare at any time. When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) isn’t being booed at New York baseball games he’s either flying to Cancun or running for president. And there are others, hovering in the background like a swarm of mosquitos on a warm Florida evening.
It’s more than likely that DeSantis will be very active during the next two years. He won’t be overtly campaigning but expect him to be flying all over the country making speeches, raising money, building connections, endorsing candidates and campaigning without officially campaigning.
But it may not come to a knock-down, drag out battle. One plausible scenario is that Trump will give up his presidential ambitions and endorse DeSantis in return for a promise of a full presidential pardon of all crimes if DeSantis becomes president. However, that would require a rational calculation by Trump, for which he has not shown a proclivity to date.
All this also supposes some pretty big assumptions: that the United States will retain its current constitutional order; that elections will happen on time; that America will stay a democracy; that Florida won’t wash into the sea; and that war, famine, plague and death won’t end the world as we know it.
No one can really know for certain in advance. But it is fairly safe to say that in days to come Donald Trump will be as vile and bitter and vicious as he has always been and that Ronald DeSantis will still be as ambitious and dismissive and arrogant as he has proven so far.
Originally posted Nov. 19, 2022 on The Paradise Progressive