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The DeSantis memo meltdown shows he never learned the first lesson about Trump

It’s just the latest brutal headline for Ron DeSantis

Eric Garcia
Thursday 17 August 2023 22:17 BST
Ron DeSantis at the Iowa State Fair.
Ron DeSantis at the Iowa State Fair. (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Early in my career in politics, before I got into journalism, a former boss of mine taught us interns a rule I have never forgotten: Never say or do anything that you wouldn’t want published on the front page of The New York Times. Even after I decided a career in partisan politics wasn’t for me, I have tried to abide by that rule in journalism.

Apparently nobody taught Ron DeSantis’s team that rule. Friends of the Inside Washington Newsletter Maggie Haberman, Shane Goldmacher and Jonathan Swan at The Times reported on a memo from a pro-DeSantis super PAC outlining his debate strategy.

The memo outlined two core points for Mr DeSantis’s strategy: attack businessman and political neophyte Vivek Ramaswamy as “Fake Vivek” Or “Vivek the Fake” and a plan to defend former president Donald Trump when other candidates, namely former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, attack the Republican frontrunner.

In addition, the memo suggested that in response to the oft-repeated critique that Mr DeSantis is cold, aloof or outright mean to people, he “invoke a personal anecdote story about family, kids, Casey, showing emotion.”

Campaigns often have these internal strategy memos, particularly for big moments like debates. But the big problem for the DeSantis campaign is it has essentially farmed out its strategy over to Never Back Down, a super PAC. Indeed, as Mr DeSantis’s formal campaign has shed staff, many of his employees have moved to the super PAC.

The major benefit of using a super PAC is unlike a campaign, donors do not have a maximum cap that they can give like they would were they to give directly to a candidate. But they have a significant downside: they cannot legally coordinate with a candidate, meaning they have to release these types of material publicly and with a wink and a nod, the campaign will pick them up.

That also means the press and their opponents could catch them and indeed, the response was swift. Mr Ramaswamy slammed the governor as a “professional politician” and a “super PAC puppets” who used “attacks on other candidates as a substitute for a message of their own.”

Similarly, the fact that the super PAC broadcast the strategy in a way anyone could find it means that his posturing and any potential “zingers” would be seen as contrived. David Axelrod, the brains behind Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “Now, if and when @RonDeSantis does any of these things in next week's debate, he'll look utterly inauthentic.”

The story is just the latest brutal headline for Mr DeSantis. Earlier this week, The New Yorker reported that the DeSantis meltdown came down to one key problem: the governor has so far failed to find a message that criticised Mr Trump and his attempt to run to Mr Trump’s right has all but flopped.

Mr DeSantis and his team should have known that the only way to beat Mr Trump is, to borrow from an old nursery rhyme, to go through him rather than over or around him. Mr DeSantis served in Congress for the first two years of Mr Trump’s presidency and he actively courted Mr Trump to endorse him in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary. He saw his fellow Florida Men Jeb Bush and Sen Marco Rubio fail to attack Mr Trump only to see Mr Trump defenestrate both of them as “Low energy” and “Liddle Marco.”

But it’s not just Mr DeSantis who did not heed the old lessons. The memo first appeared on the website of Axiom Strategies, which is owned by none other than Jeff Roe, who ran Sen Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign that led him to victory in Iowa.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Mr Cruz deftly tried to avoid criticising Mr Trump, at one point saying, “The Establishment's only hope: Trump & me in a cage match,” before calling Mr Trump “terrific.”

Mr Trump did not return the favour, instead calling Mr Cruz’s wife Heidi ugly and calling the Texas Republican “Lyin’ Ted.” Mr Roe, who has a reputation of being one of the most ruthlessly effective operatives in the GOP, surely remembers this but has somehow not applied those lessons.

Indeed, as an adviser to Gov Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia campaign in 2021, he cracked the code of how to embrace Mr Trump just enough to turn out the base while keeping a sufficient amount of distance to elect a Republican in a solidly Democratic state.

That makes Mr DeSantis’s memo meltdown all the more surprising. The GOP has seen for years that nobody can wait for Mr Trump to go away; they must make him go away. And any attempt to ignore him winds up leading them getting burned in the process.

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