Mark Z. Barabak: Ron DeSantis faces a sobering lesson on ambition, hubris and big talk
Published in Op Eds
When you're the governor of a state, you're a big, important deal.
Your whims can assume the force of law. The stroke of a pen can open or close schools, help or harm major industries and, in cases involving capital punish-ment, decide whether a person lives or dies.
A governor who wins election in a big state, like, say, California, Texas or Florida, is even more powerful and may be all the more convinced of their genius and political prowess. (Who's going to disabuse them?)
Inevitably, Washington beckons, as it has for Florida's freshly reelected governor, Ron DeSantis, who formally, inauspiciously entered the Republican presidential contest Wednesday with a glitchy announcement on a sputtering Twitter livestream.
As if on schedule, DeSantis learned a lesson that other gubernatorial grandees soon came to understand: Despite their high esteem for themselves, there is absolutely nothing like running for president.
And what's more, all the glory they've reveled in back home doesn't promise success once they cross state lines to seek the White House.
"It's a totally elevated experience that is like none other in the political world," said Don Sipple, who worked on then-California Gov. Pete Wilson's winning 1994 reelection campaign and losing 1996 run for president. "The scrutiny, the magnification of mistakes. It's a torture test."
Dave Carney agreed. He helped steer Rick Perry's career as the longest-serving governor in Texas history and suffered through his failed 2012 White House bid.
"It isn't running harder," Carney said. "It isn't just taking the map and doubling it or tripling it or quadrupling it. It is a different tempo. And it's a different set of issues" in state after state after state.
None of this is to suggest that DeSantis can't or won't be the Republican nominee in 2024, or go on to become the nation's 47th president.
He's stumbled over the last several months, displaying his inexperience in foreign policy and leaning even more aggressively into his spiteful vendetta with Disney, one of Florida's largest and most significant employers.
DeSantis' rough going has scraped much of the gloss off November's 19-point reelection victory and encouraged other Republicans to join the GOP race and take on the front- runner, former President Trump.
More significantly, DeSantis' forays into the early-balloting states of Iowa and New Hampshire — and the see-me, feel-me, touch-me expectation of voters there — have revealed a candidate with the social skills of a hermit and charisma of a wet cardboard box.
That said, every presidential hopeful goes through at least one difficult patch in his or her campaign. Those who prevail learn from the experience, adjust and improve — and don't go mistaking their prior success for more than it's worth.
Even a nation-state like California, home to nearly 40 million people and the world's fifth (or fourth, depending who you believe) economy, is no stand-in for the nation as a whole. In fact, as Wilson proved, the skill set required to win statewide office here and other behemoths like Florida — mainly the capacity to raise a ton of money to pay for wall-to-wall TV advertising — is not automatically of great service elsewhere.
That's especially so in the more sparsely populated states bunched at the front of the political calendar.
"Money is very important," said Carney, who operates out of New Hampshire, "and good TV ads. A good message, good digital execution."
But, he went on, "you just can't do one event in a state and leave," the way a candidate for governor might pop into a city only long enough to raise a bushel of cash and make the 6 o'clock news. "You really have to invest in high-quality time with people."
Think of a run for president as a kind of steeplechase, its path strewn with all sorts of obstacles.
Different rules in each state for collecting delegates. Different rules for getting on the ballot. Different political personalities needing care and tending. And, not least, local concerns and cultural quirks that can easily trip up those who arrive uninitiated.
"There are parochialisms that are in play in a presidential contest that you don't experience in a state contest," Sipple said.
In Missouri, for instance, where he worked a number of campaign, the pronunciation of the place matters a lot to certain people.
"Those in the outstate rural areas believe it should be 'Missou-rah,'" Sipple explained. Elsewhere, residents "believe it should be 'Missour-ee.' And they will discount you if you get it wrong."
And woe unto candidates who visit Nevada, one of the key early-voting states, and tells the audience how pleased they are to be in Ne-VAH-duh.
The success of another Texas governor is instructive.
George W. Bush was not only a supple one-on-one campaigner, he spent many years — working longer and more diligently than Perry, Wilson or DeSantis — cultivating allies around the country and laying the groundwork for his eventual 2000 presidential run. (His political pedigree and famous last name didn't hurt.)
Sipple, who helped Bush win his first term as Texas governor in 1994, said the only thing that success in a big state does "is allow you to compete at a higher level that you've never done before."
Or to put it a way that DeSantis, a college baseball star at Yale, might appreciate: Winning a landslide in Florida is kind of like being a phenom at the triple-A level in baseball's minor leagues. It's impressive. But you still haven't proved you can hit major league pitching.
That's the test facing DeSantis in the weeks and months ahead.
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