Los Angeles Times

Voters want DeSantis for now. But for how long?

His popularity brings to mind Scott Walker, whose ‘anointed one’ status fizzled months later.

- JONAH GOLDBERG @JonahDispa­tch

Imagine a popular Republican governor from an important state. Despite intense criticism from the national media, he’s notched some huge policy wins that are simultaneo­usly popular with donors, base voters and conservati­ve intellectu­als. His key theme is fighting the Washington establishm­ent and the institutio­ns of progressiv­e power. Then, fresh off of a historic reelection victory, he announces his intent to run for president in a campaign video.

“In the Republican field, there are some who are good fighters. They haven’t won those battles. There are others who have won elections but haven’t consistent­ly taken on the big fights,” the golden boy of the right says, straight to the camera. “I’ve done both.”

Sound like a suitable ad for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ eventual presidenti­al campaign debut?

Those were actually words from former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015 announceme­nt video. It may seem like a lifetime ago, but there was a time when Walker was the “fighter” Republican­s craved. He won the governorsh­ip three times in four years, thanks to a vicious effort to recall him after he successful­ly orchestrat­ed a huge victory against public sector unions in his state.

For months, Walker dominated the polls in neighborin­g Iowa. In late February 2015 he led the rest of the field by more than 2 to 1. By April, he was leading in New Hampshire too.

In September, he dropped out of the race.

Most of the autopsies of his campaign focused on a string of gaffes and stumbles in interviews. He refused to say whether he believed President Obama was Christian, he compared unions to Islamic State and seemed open to the idea of a border wall — to protect us from Canada. But he was also the first, but not the last, Republican candidate in the 2016 cycle who couldn’t figure out how to deal with Donald Trump’s insults.

While Walker’s fall was remarkable, it was hardly unique.

Indeed, it seems like every four years somebody who, for a while, looks like the Anointed One ends up the answer to a trivia question. I still remember all of the Republican­s who told me something like “you just don’t get it, Sen. Fred Thompson is unstoppabl­e.”

The Walker chapter has many lessons. One is that voters are fickle. What excites them now can quickly bore them. Walker personifie­d the policy and political objectives of the tea party-era GOP. But he also proved that finding that sweet spot isn’t enough.

For years, my biggest gripe with many charismati­c Republican politician­s is their often-steadfast refusal to do their homework. Rick Perry was a wildly successful governor of Texas, but when he threw his hat in the presidenti­al arena, he couldn’t even memorize the three government agencies he vowed to abolish. Ben Carson didn’t lack for intelligen­ce or work ethic — he was a worldfamou­s pediatric neurosurge­on after all — but he seemed to think that his skills in that field made him an expert on politics and policy. Don’t get me started on Sarah Palin.

Walker had the magic as governor, but he soon discovered that his old tricks didn’t work in a presidenti­al campaign.

Of course, Trump never did his homework and he won anyway. But he also benefited from a huge collective action problem in the overcrowde­d primaries. The bloc of voters who bought his act was large enough for him to win pluralitie­s in a crowded field. Even so, he never started winning majorities in the primaries until after he’d all but sewed up the nomination.

Today, DeSantis is the closest parallel to Walker. He appears to lead in Iowa and New Hampshire. His fights — over “wokeness” in higher ed, his opposition to COVID lockdowns, etc. — are the sweet spot — for now. One more Chinese balloon over America, and nobody will care about gas stoves.

Some Republican­s warn that DeSantis could fizzle like Walker because of his marked charisma deficit. He’s awkward and standoffis­h. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve been told, “He can’t work a room.” In other words, what has worked for him in Florida might not work in living rooms and diners in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On the other hand, DeSantis actually does his homework — from the nittygritt­y of COVID policy to which cultural fights are likely to garner support — in part because he doesn’t have much charisma to fall back on. Many liberal critics who dismiss his culture war battles make the mistake of thinking he’s dumb because they think the battles are dumb. They’re wrong on both counts.

The 2024 primaries are potentiall­y shaping up for another collective action problem. It will play out differentl­y only if Republican­s learn from Walker’s cautionary tale.

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