The most depressing thing we learned about the 2024 Republican presidential candidates last week when they met for their first onstage encounter in Milwaukee is that most of them would vote for former President Trump, even if he is a convicted criminal by election day.
Most would probably follow him to hell, too.
This was supposed to be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ breakout night. After all, he is the front-runner among candidates not named Trump. But he didn’t make much of an impression on most commentators. To use one of his favorite insults, he was more a listless vessel than a breakout star.
It turns out that DeSantis is not very good at debate, at least not the kind that prefaces a presidential election. He managed to repeat and contradict himself, promising twice to “send Joe Biden back to his basement” and once to not let Biden “hang out in his basement this time. We’re going to run him ragged around this country.” Make up your mind, Governor!
DeSantis burst onto the national stage during the pandemic, demonizing public health officials like Anthony Fauci; picking pointless fights with Disney, his state’s most important economic driver; and striking out at anything he deemed “woke,” which his own general counsel defined as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” How radical!
Repeatedly touting his state on the campaign trail as “the place where ‘woke’ goes to die,” DeSantis did not utter that word once Wednesday night, which tells us that he finally grasps that it’s a dumb rationale for a presidential campaign.
Read more: Abcarian: Donald Trump will win the debate on Wednesday just by skipping it
Nor did he mention Disney, which has become such a thorn in his side that the man whose campaign bus proclaims “Never Back Down” has gone wobbly. He now professes to have “moved on” when the feud comes up, and has urged Disney to withdraw its federal lawsuit, which claims DeSantis violated the company’s 1st Amendment rights by retaliating for the company’s objections to Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law.
DeSantis has been falling in polls, with 38-year-old tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy ascending. I think DeSantis’ debate performance helps explain why he’s flailing.
First, as has been noted extensively, the man has exactly zero charisma. As we have seen in the past couple of months, he walks among voters wearing a grin-and-bear-it grimace. He wipes his nose, then shakes hands. He scolds and hectors children.
“Before the debate,” said a report in the New York Times, “Mr. DeSantis’s aides had predicted that he would be the center of attacks. So much for that. Rivals mostly ignored him.” In politics, that’s a fate worse than forgetting which federal departments you want to abolish.
Read more: Opinion: Trump won the GOP debate by being a no-show. But who came in second?
His first substantial moment, following a question about why the populist anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond” has become an unexpected hit, morphed into a rehearsed attack on Hunter Biden’s overpriced artwork.
“We cannot succeed as a country if you are working hard and can’t afford groceries, a car or a new home while Hunter Biden can make hundreds of thousands of dollars on lousy paintings.” (Or, ahem, while a former president’s son-in-law with no background in private equity receives $2 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund?)
During a lively back-and-forth about Ukraine, DeSantis barely spoke up, promising not to send in U.S. ground troops, which has never been on the table. Weirdly, he vowed to invade Mexico “on Day 1” to take out fentanyl labs controlled by drug cartels.
As for the other candidates, callow newcomer Ramaswamy proved to be clueless about foreign policy.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was unusually subdued. Former Vice President Mike Pence, so often robotic and rehearsed, at least came alive to insult Ramaswamy.
Read more: Column: Ron DeSantis has a new attack on Disney, and it’s truly stupid
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the only woman onstage and the only candidate willing to be frank about Trump’s unpopularity, the political impossibility of a national abortion ban and Republican contributions to the national debt, is unlikely to be rewarded for her honesty in the event of a Trump candidacy.
And former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and current North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum barely registered.
DeSantis showed last week that there is really no way to out-Trump Trump. He sure tried, though.
Echoing the man he wants to beat, he said there’s only one way to deal with a cautious public health official like Fauci: “You bring Fauci in. You sit him down. And you say, ‘Anthony, you are fired.'”
Sounding every bit like a Queens mobster when pressed about whether Pence did the right thing by certifying the results of the electoral college on Jan. 6, 2021, DeSantis finally said, “Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him.”
Read more: A Newsom-DeSantis debate would be smash hit — if it happens
And, just as Trump tells fanciful, unverifiable stories, DeSantis told an absolutely bizarre one meant to illustrate the callousness of abortion. “I know a lady in Florida named Penny who survived multiple abortion attempts. She was left discarded in a pan. Fortunately, her grandmother saved her and brought her to a different hospital.” (The Penny in question, according to the Poynter Insitute’s PolitiFact, was born in 1955, long before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion. Her claim is uncorroborated.)
It’s far too soon to write Ron DeSantis’ political obituary, of course, and his campaign very quickly announced that he’d raised $1 million in the 24 hours after the debate. A quick poll had him winning the night, with Ramaswamy coming in second. But most people thought the real winner was still Trump.
It looks like DeSantis will be center stage again when the candidates, probably sans Trump, gather next on Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. He’ll invoke Reagan — they all will. If they pledge again to vote for the GOP nominee, convicted felon or not, Reagan, who is buried on the library grounds, will be spinning in his grave.
If it’s in the news right now, the L.A. Times’ Opinion section covers it. Sign up for our weekly opinion newsletter.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.