The skies are dark and the ride bumpy for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ private jet these days as the dour Floridian’s presidential bid lags in the polls, lays off campaign staff, and tries to find a resonating theme other than the useful skills once taught to slaves in America.
The chattering classes are up with negative reviews and Donald Trump has zeroed in on DeSantis’ personality with the same heat-seeking accuracy he used to dispatch “low energy” Jeb Bush eight years ago. Already Newt Gingrich is using his morning, noon, and night appearances on Fox News to suggest it’s time for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to get in the race.
If American politics teaches any lesson, however, it is that you can’t forecast the future.
I was watching the Today Show on a January morning in 1980, hours after George H.W. Bush shocked the political world by winning the Iowa Republican caucuses. “I would suggest that perhaps Ronald Reagan is dead politically,” opined NBC pundit Tom Pettit.
Cut to a couple weeks later: The Gipper was back in the game. Other GOP contenders marched on stage in New Hampshire at what Bush thought would be a one-on-one debate. The moderator tried to cut off Reagan’s welcoming words, to which he shot back: “I am paying for this microphone.” Bush stood silently. Silence was not golden: Reagan routed him by a two-to-one margin in America’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Long downward trajectories are part of our now-endless campaign season. So are comebacks, for a candidate who seizes the moment, picks the proper battlefield, takes risks and deploys resources. Joe Biden was humiliated in Iowa and New Hampshire four years ago but found his lane in South Carolina. After imploding during the summer of 2007, John McCain rode his “Straight Talk Express” bus to victory in New Hampshire.
We have a homegrown memory. In Washington’s 1984 Democratic gubernatorial contest, Jim McDermott wiped the floor with opponent Booth Gardner in a midsummer debate. Booth retreated to the family compound on Vashon Island, decided he really wanted the job, and loaned himself $500,000. Clapp family disciplinarian Greg Barlow was brought in to make sure the money was spent wisely. Gardner went on to win the primary and oust our state’s last Republican governor, John Spellman. (Gardner was always tight with money: Members of the state’s congressional delegation were taken aback when hit up for a pricey post-election fundraiser so Booth could pay himself back.)
Based on recent history, here are seeds and strategies for a comeback:
Seize the moment
Bill Clinton was a dead man walking in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, buffeted by a draft-evasions scandal and allegations of an affair with lounge singer Gennifer Flowers. Washington, D.C., media bigfeet were writing his obituary in the bar at the Wayfarer. But Clinton kept running, day and night. He and Hillary went on 60 Minutes. He had a riveting moment with an elderly couple at a town meeting in Portsmouth, coaxing out the fact that they could afford food or needed medications, not both.
Clinton lost the primary to ex-Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, but not by much. As votes came in, he proclaimed himself the “comeback kid.” A Republican parallel: Four years earlier, after losing in Iowa to Bob Dole, Vice President Bush made rounds of fast food joints in Nashua on foot after a New Hampshire snowstorm. Asked by a McDonald’s waitress if he wanted a coffee refill, our preppy vice president replied: “Just a splash.”
Aided by a negative TV spot aired before his foe could respond, “Poppy” Bush came back to win the Granite State. Dole imploded. Asked during a joint primary night appearance if he had any words for Bush, Dole snapped: “Yeah, stop lying about my record.” He would fire two senior advisers later that week and leave them on an airport tarmac. Come Super Tuesday, Bush won 16 of 17 contests.
Avoiding critical audiences is a maxim of bad campaign management. But displaying the guts to face the lions can have a galvanizing effect. The classic example, John F. Kennedy’s choice to accept an invite from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association when religious bigotry was in the air. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale had declared: “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” Before 300 Protestant clergy, JFK declared: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
Kennedy had been urged by House Speaker Sam Rayburn not to go before the ministers. Speech writer Ted Sorenson told a friend, going in: “We can lose the election right there in Houston on Monday night.” The speech is still quoted 63 years later.
A modern equivalent: In the midst of the Rev. Wright controversy in 2008, when his minister had been quoted saying, “God damn America,” Barack Obama chose to address his country’s racial strife and divisions. “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown us it can always be perfected,” he told a Philadelphia audience. The speech saved Obama’s candidacy.
DeSantis has been brusque, stand-offish, nasty, and relentlessly negative on the campaign trail, using words like “woke,” airing a homophobic video, using scorched earth tactics in culture wars, and even picking a fight with Disney World. He is appealing to the basest of his party’s base. The growing judgment, however, is that people don’t like the guy.
That personality is a formula for come-from-ahead defeats. Bob Dole never recovered from the glowering image brilliantly spoofed by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. Nor did Michael Dukakis from his bloodless answer to moderator Bernard Show’s reaction to whether he would support the death penalty if wife Kitty were raped and murdered.
I watched the first Al Gore/George W. Bush debate in 2000 with a group of Snohomish County voters. They felt that Gore won on points but was pompous and overbearing, and so they liked Bush better. Hillary Clinton had a fine, earthy sense of humor – in private. Almost no warmth was apparent on the public stage, in contrast to her husband’s ability to connect both with an audience and one-on-one.
McCain recovered his mojo by being a happy warrior, roaming the stage in New Hampshire towns. Arriving late for a town meeting, I was escorted to a seat by two volunteers, a high school kid and a veteran of WWII’s Battle of Anzio, both first time political volunteers. Unlike many GOP gatherings, the event was happy, upbeat, and free of pinched, hostile faces.
After the 2012 election, an independent documentary on Mitt Romney hit the screen. The filmmaker had been given access and delivered an up-close, backstage up-close look at the candidate and his tight-knit family. The film showed a much more relaxed, engaged, likable guy. Gone was the programmed stiff who would not grant interviews and, when asked a debate question about pay equity, went on about reviewing resumes from “binders full of women.”
Blowing off people is bad politics. How did Democrat Tom Foley survive for 30 years as a congressman in Eastern Washington? He was holding a town meeting in Colfax, fielding questions from the wheat farmers. The traveling press corps were hungry: So was Big Tom, although on a diet. As the meeting broke up, however, a local high school student approached for help on a term paper.
The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives sat down in a corner, enveloping a desk, and gave of his time. When, and only when all questions were answered, we decamped for Pullman – and dinner.