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This Is Thunderdome: A new challenger enters!
Two men enter, one man leaves
Two items before we get to that failure to launch: For those of you who are focused on 2024, today The Spectator is launching a new weekly newsletter focused on the players, personalities, and challenges in the arena — which you can subscribe to here! The first edition is below, launched a day after we lost our icon, Tina Turner — RIP, Aunty Entity.
A note for paying subscribers: tonight is our book club on Amusing Ourselves to Death — and I’ll send you a separate email this afternoon with a Zoom link for our 8 PM conversation! If you aren’t a paying subscriber but want to join in — become one today!
THUNDERDOME: A NEW CHALLENGER ENTERS
The battle is joined! Welcome to the inaugural edition of the new Spectator newsletter, THUNDERDOME.
Loyal readers will know this has been the name of my columns covering presidential election coverage for years. It was always a tribute to the late great Tina Turner, such an incredible icon and the star villain of the classic Mad Max movie where “two men enter, one man leaves.”
There’s going to be plenty to write and talk about in this cycle, which is historic for so many reasons: a reviled or beloved former president trying to fight his way back on top; the oldest president ever trying to cling to power; a vice president who goes gaga for Venn diagrams and yellow school buses, and of course, a young conservative star governor with a massive war chest trying to unseat the leader of his party.
Now that Governor Ron DeSantis has finally jumped into the arena, THUNDERDOME is officially upon us! And already the media and Trump-land are agreed: TOTAL DISASTER!
About that choice of entrance music…
So instead of a big Florida football arena full of fans or standing in front of the Statue of Liberty, the new favorite place to announce is… Twitter Spaces?
It’s an odd decision — coming across as too online and too cute, while an attempt to troll Donald Trump at the same time. Trump’s rise in 2016 depended on his ubiquitous presence in the minds of media, driven between rallies by his aggressive tweets. So why not go there and partner with the most prominent billionaire in the world to show your range, seriousness and policy depth? As a concept, it seems like a fine idea — for something you do after you’ve launched your presidential campaign, not AS the launch of that campaign!
The downsides were obvious even before the conversation started. Twitter Spaces is intriguing but notoriously unreliable — it’s an app being asked to do a thing it wasn’t really built to do originally after all — and hundreds of thousands of people all trying to jam into a room at the same time tested the limits of what Twitter could do. That’s not on DeSantis, of course — any more than Tim Scott’s mic going out during his announcement — but his team was betting this would work, clearly, and had to spin it afterwards as “Breaking the Internet.” Which… no, you did not. Paper got 16 million views for their Kim Kardashian cover, while you just tested the limits of Twitter’s tech and found it wanting. But they did raise a million dollars in an hour after he launched, so that’s more for the war chest!
There are positives and negatives to having an insular campaign team. One positive is that you have less backstabbing and leaks. One big negative is that you can become cocksure and hardheaded about the rightness of your inventive strategy and the wrongness of your tired old critics. We’ve seen candidates succeed and fail in spite of this, but there were a lot of campaigns in 2022 where this was their real failure.
The candidate isn’t the problem
There were three ways this rocket could blow up on the launchpad: 1) If Twitter Spaces failed to function 2) If DeSantis failed to impress 3) If people didn’t show up and pay attention. Only one of those things happened — and it strikes me as immediately forgettable.
To DeSantis’s credit, he was not the problem here. His answers to wide-ranging questions were impressive — and outlined very clearly how he intends to take on Trump. In summary: “Donny’s promises were great, but he was terrible at executing them. I’m great at doing them. That’s why I win, and he is part of a culture of losing.”
Throughout the evening, across multiple interviews, DeSantis used this approach quite a bit: including on spending, on culture war issues, on Christopher Wray and the FBI, on the Fed and Jerome Powell and, most importantly, on immigration. This pleased the very online and those engaged on single issues. But the real test is what comes next. The campaign plans a kickoff event in Iowa next week, and we’ll see how DeSantis performs in that more traditional format.
The risks are clear
We should pause to understand the huge gamble DeSantis is taking by challenging Trump instead of waiting four years for an open field. He remains the most popular figure in the party, has a dominant grip on most of the GOP’s segments and can overwhelm and entertain at the same time.
Trump has a host of people invested in returning him to the White House — and the media, the NeverTrump movement and the Democratic Party are all in favor of him being the nominee again. DeSantis will have to overcome all of this to win — a tall order even for a figure with such Republican goodwill for his performance in the past four years. DeSantis is betting on himself — and it seems like he knows the risks involved.
Trump floods the inboxes
The Trump team treated the DeSantis launch as if it were a debate, flooding inboxes with “Truths” that we wouldn’t otherwise see and blasting DeSantis for his record and more. What’s very clear is that even though Trump’s strongest support is among the most conservative voters in the GOP, he intends to attack the Florida governor overwhelmingly from the left. “He’s too socially conservative, he’s too fiscally conservative and he’s too radical” is a strange thing to hear coming from the leader of the party about one of the most popular conservative governors in the country. They even went after DeSantis for being pro-nuclear power, which is quite the thing!
It’s an odd tactic, choosing napalm instead of patting little Ronny on the head — but it’s the approach Trump’s team has chosen and he’s sticking to it… with one exception: immigration, where Trump maintains that a vote against his Goodlatte amnesty package is a vote against the wall (Jim Jordan, Mark Meadow, and Markwayne Mullin all voted the same way, along with a host of other Trump endorsers).
This response by DeSantis to a question from Phil Wegmann sets the tone on how he intends to respond to such allegations:
The big question
What’s clear here is DeSantis isn’t going to hold back from responding to Trump in policy fights — there’s no fake “let’s get along” strategy here. What will prove a bigger test is that as always, Trump gets very personal very quickly when he feels like he’s losing a political argument. How he reacts to being called a loser, potentially to his face, is the big question — one we won’t know an answer to until the debate stage. Maybe it’ll go something like this?
One last thing
The Trump campaign also alleges that a line from DeSantis that sounds like campaign branding, “Great American Comeback,” was stolen from Trump. In reality both lines were used by a certain earlier president— proving once again that you can’t top the Gipper.
Other Commentary on Florida Man’s Launch
Items of Interest
“All television news programs begin, end, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music...It is there, I assume, for the same reason music is used in theater and films — to create a mood and provide a leitmotif for the entertainment... as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.”
— Neil Postman