It is now time to rewrite the political science handbooks. Or perhaps the ones on campaign strategies. Or, maybe the ones on human nature are in error. All that we know is that something has gone very very wrong when it started out looking to be so right. Last week after Donald Trump’s CNN Town Hall, an event which was universally hailed as disastrous, Ron DeSantis’ Never Back Down PAC found its voice. It ripped Trump a new one. It issued a straightforward, factual tweet, which was devastating. This was the first time that DeSantis had done what people were begging him to do for so long, which was to finally stand up to and openly engage Trump.
The tweet hit home but rather than being hailed as the basic platform for DeSantis, Team DeSantis is trying ever so hard to forget that the tweet even exists. It may be erased soon. Let’s go with a screenshot, shall we, out of an abundance of caution?
That’s a pretty effective attack ad. It checks all the boxes. It’s factual, gets the reader thinking, and has just enough of a snide aspect to it to be entertaining. This is good form. So why oh why is this being considered a “massive mistake” in DeSantis world? Isn’t this exactly what the doctor ordered and finally, at long last it happened? Semafor:
This was the kind of all-out critique of Trump that Ron DeSantis — and most of the 2024 field — have never made themselves.
One DeSantis ally familiar with their thinking told Semafor that the group’s leadership “100%” recognized it as an error. A second source familiar with the situation added that they were told the tweet was sent without the approval of the PAC’s senior communications team.
“That post was a massive mistake,” the first ally said. “It sounded like it came from CNN, and I think people inside realized that that was a massive mistake, and I hope it won’t be repeated again.”
If telling the truth about Trump, at long last, is a “massive mistake” one that hopefully won’t be repeated, then this 2024 primary season is off to an even weirder start than anybody thought possible.
Here’s a partial answer: is it now thought that rather than address the orange elephant in the room, that if the GOP just continues to ignore it and talks instead about how great DeSantis is, that everything will be just fine?
In perhaps a sign of concern around how it had been received, Never Back Down also added a reply to the tweet the next morning: This one focused on DeSantis’ “impressive accomplishments” in Florida and his dedication to discussing his “great vision” for the country.
In a statement, a representative from Never Back Down called the sources’ version of events “false,” but did not name any specific errors.
“This inaccurate gossip based reporting about internal conversations and strategy at Never Back Down is false,” Steve Cortes, a spokesperson for the PAC, said in a statement. “Never Back Down remains focused on telling the incredible story of success and service of Governor Ron DeSantis and amplifying the growing grassroots calls for him to become president.”
It looks like that’s the route they’re going, ignore the elephant time.
And they do raise a good point here, one which participants in primaries have to remember: Don’t crucify the opponent too badly, s/he may end up being the one on the ticket that you now have to rally all the troops around.
Never Back Down’s aborted attack gets to a core obstacle for DeSantis and indeed all of Trump’s Republican challengers: How do they attack him without sounding like Democrats to Republican voters?
Entire categories of what would be go-to attacks against any other candidate are effectively forbidden. DeSantis backed off almost immediately after a brief mention of Trump’s hush money payments to an adult film actress. He strongly defended him from his indictment in New York, from an FBI search on his Mar-a-Lago home that turned up hundreds of classified documents, and has avoided getting into topics related to other investigations. Even as DeSantis boasts on the pre-campaign trail that he’s a “winner,” he still hasn’t taken a clear stance on the most fundamental part of any electability argument: That his opponent lost the previous election.
Primary voters have long been conditioned to see discussion of Trump’s issues with the law, or January 6th, or women as liberal obsessions designed to drag down the party, not issues to be litigated in a contest between Republicans. After CNN’s town hall, for example, the network’s focus group of attendees bemoaned that the hosts kept bringing up his 2020 election claims: “Couldn’t the media ask him a question about 2024?” one voter asked.
No, they really can’t, because Trump won’t allow it. He’s been cautioned by all his allies, most recently Nigel Farage, to get rid of the 2020 stolen election dirge and move on. He will not.
This reflects my own experience on the trail in recent months: Republican voters rarely cite Trump’s personal or legal issues as prime arguments against him or even topics that they’re concerned about (the furthest they’ll usually go is to note that they’re tired of the “drama”). Issues like the economy, parental control over what’s taught in schools, or the border are much more likely to come up first.
So what to hit Trump on instead? DeSantis and his supporters have telegraphed some likely lines of attack aimed at hitting him solely from the right.
There’s electability, where DeSantis has recently criticized a “culture of losing” in the party without naming Trump, while warning Republicans will lose again if they “get distracted and focus the election on the past or on other side issues.”
And then there’s competence: DeSantis has hinted at attacking Trump from the right on COVID-19, in particular, saying repeatedly that he would have fired Dr. Anthony Fauci and resisted health guidance from CDC officials.
DeSantis has tried to call out Trump for attacking fellow Republicans as well, saying his criticisms of his record on Social Security and Medicare amount to “Democrat attacks” that damage the party.
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
Some potential 2024 candidates, most notably Chris Christie, have urged Republicans to go further in attacking Trump over the issues named in the Never Back Down tweet. “The way to win is to beat the guy that’s ahead,” he said on The Dispatch podcast. “And so what would a campaign look like? A campaign would look like a direct, frontal challenge to Donald Trump.”
So far it’s been that everyone believes that a) this is what’s needed and b) this is something nobody has the balls to do. Less than a week ago, Team DeSantis finally found the balls and they scored a hit, a palpable hit — and now they’re trying to shovel dirt over it, put up detour signs and hope that nobody remembers it, much less uses it as a guidepost and starts doing more of it.
Maybe they’re all back to the original playbook, which is to hope and pray that Jack Smith, Leticia James, Alvin Bragg, Fani Willis and that crowd all do what the GOP can’t and/or won’t, which is get rid of Trump as a problem.
It certainly looks that way, doesn’t it?