For Sale or Disposal: One Governor, Heavily Used, Poor Condition

The current governor of the great State of Florida is no longer a candidate for President of the United States.  Because of my ongoing ties to the Sunshine State -- in particular, my affiliation with the for-now-highly-ranked flagship campus of its state university system -- I will have occasion to write more in the future about state-level matters with which that man is involved.  Today, however, is an opportunity to write his political obituary.  Some columns are more enjoyable to write than others.

It was only three days ago that Ron DeSantis "suspended" his presidential campaign, but his departure from the race is already very old news.  This is only partly because the political news cycle quickly moved on to the New Hampshire primary results, in which the two remaining Republican candidates continued to say absolutely nothing useful while managing to further degrade the US political environment.  DeSantis's departure feels like stale news mostly, however, because it has obviously been inevitable for such a long time.  He put everything into the Iowa caucuses, but his polling went from middling to bad to worse, making it a puzzle why he even bothered to stay in the fight as long as he did.

Correction: He never in fact engaged in anything resembling a political fight, choosing instead simply to "be a candidate for President of the United States."  This involved a fair amount of low-level bickering on fake-debate stages, but there was no fight in his fight.  More than seven months ago,  Professor Dorf asked: "What Are Trump's GOP Rivals for the Nomination Hoping to Accomplish?"  There were a lot of possible answers, but only two of the candidates were in fact running against Donald Trump.  DeSantis was not one of them, yet he stuck around long enough to make himself almost certainly not a vice presidential pick (which is obviously what Tim Scott and Vivek Ramaswamy want), so what was he in fact doing?

The answer most definitely was not that DeSantis had something or some things that he wanted to accomplish as a matter of policy.  Had he become President, he would surely have done some awful things, but his "case" for being President was never about any of that.  Even being against "woke" -- which he could never define, other than being against whatever liberals favor on social policy -- was not something that he was willing to emphasize after it became clear that no one was listening to that shtick anymore.  He seemed obsessed with trans kids, and he wanted to prevent schoolchildren from learning about racism, but those are not presidential duties in any event.

If he had no agenda to which he was deeply committed, then, what was DeSantis trying to do -- and do in a way that took him out of the vice-presidential sweepstakes?  One bit of conventional wisdom is that he was setting himself up for future runs for President, for which there is at least some precedent, with failed Republican primary challengers like John McCain in 2000 and Mitt Romney in 2008 becoming failed general election candidates like John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 -- and also, to be sure, the failed George H.W. Bush in 1980 successfully becoming President George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Even on its own terms, however, that is a very iffy strategy.  Chris Christie held himself out of the 2012 race and failed miserably in 2016 because his moment had passed.  Rick Santorum ran again and again but hit his ceiling and is now remembered mostly as the subject of a crude joke.  DeSantis already is a punchline, so what would another run accomplish?  More to the point, the rules of the game have changed, because if Trump becomes President again next January, we will enter an era in which being one of the last candidates standing in the previous election will mean nothing.  Trump would almost certainly make himself President for Life, so it would be unclear when (or how) all of the other Republican presidential wannabes would have a chance to replace their eventually deceased Dear Leader.

Let us review the basic facts staring at DeSantis.  He is currently 45 years old and will -- if he serves out his full second term as Governor -- be only 48 when he becomes unemployed.  With the exception of the two years from 2010-12 -- when he and some buddies ran an LSAT test-prep company and he was nominally working for a politically connected BigLaw firm while setting up his electoral career -- he will have spent his entire adult life as a government employee.  Six years as a military lawyer, six years as a (highly disliked) member of Congress, and eight years as a large-state governor seems like a good resume, right?

Not so much, at least not in DeSantis's case.  As I mentioned in passing in a Dorf on Law column last month, he has nowhere to go from here.  Marco Rubio, the senior US Senator from Florida, is only 52 years old and began his third term in office a year ago.  His seat is up for reelection in 2028.  The state's junior senator is Rick Scott, whose is running for reelection this year.  I have no idea whether it would even be possible under relevant Florida election law for DeSantis to decide at this point to run for that seat this year, but even if it is possible, he would lose badly in the Republican primary.

If DeSantis wants to move up in the US political hierarchy, then, he has to wait for Rubio to get bored and walk away before 2028 or for Scott (who is 71, which counts as good news for DeSantis) to get bored and/or die before 2030.  Or DeSantis could move to another state, where his charm and charisma would quickly make him a darling of politicians and citizens alike!  Could he retool and come back as a stronger candidate?  As Molly Jong-Fast put it last summer: "Rebooting Ron DeSantis Still Leaves You With Ron DeSantis."  The guy who thought -- actually thought -- that "Make America Florida" was a winning message in a country where Florida has become more of a laugh line than New Jersey has already tried to do a makeover, and it was a massive bust.

So the presidency and vice presidency are no longer options for the term-limited governor, and so is the Senate.  Back to the House?  Not a chance, due to ego and because even younger people would be in his way.  Serving in Trump's cabinet?  Maybe, but it would have to be an act of caprice by Trump, who rewards loyalty and would have no reason to throw DeSantis a career-saving lifeline.  Moreover, even if he served the usual two years in some cabinet position -- the Department of Anti-Woke? -- he would either be 48 (if he resigned as governor next January to take the position) or 50 if he joined the second wave of cabinet appointees in Trump's second term (again, the second of n terms, where n is limited only by Trump's biological viability).

The completely distorted standard story about DeSantis's "historic win" in his 2022 gubernatorial reelection proved to be a fatal blow to DeSantis's career trajectory.  He and his billionaire backers believed the hype that he was "Trump with a brain," or some stupid thing like that, and he ended up closing the few remaining doors that might have been open to him -- all while managing not just to be a terrible candidate but to establish himself as a laughingstock.  How does one come back from that?

That means that, as far as anyone can tell, DeSantis's political career now has a known expiration date: January 5, 2027.  What will he do for the next thirty-five and a half months?  In the column from last month that I mentioned above, where I mentioned DeSantis's lack of plausible future political career paths, I also wrote this:

[DeSantis] will surely never reverse anything that he has done.  All of his culture warring, not only as applied to universities but to everything else, seems to come from genuine hatred, not merely political opportunism.  And even if he honestly does not care about "saying gay," there is no way that he would ever have reason to announce, "You know what, I'm never going to be President, so I'm just going to undo all of this nonsense."  Moreover, his gerrymandered Republican majorities in the state legislature would never go along.

As Paul Krugman recently put it: "[T]he Florida governor ... was supposed to offer a Trump-like appeal to the Republican base while in reality being mainly a defender of elite privilege[, but] DeSantis wasn’t playacting at being a cultural and social extremist. Who gets into a gratuitous fight with Disney or has his handpicked surgeon general crusade against Covid vaccines?"  DeSantis apparently was not merely positioning himself for Republican electoral glory with all of that ugliness.  He has done with conviction what a genuinely hateful, cruel bigot would do, not what someone who is merely trying to endear himself to hate, cruel, bigoted voters would do halfheartedly.

Again, what will DeSantis do now?  Three New York Times reporters tried to answer this question, concluding a column yesterday by quoting an unaffiliated Florida voter who said that "she hoped Mr. DeSantis would recognize that his approach did not work, and move closer to the middle of the political spectrum.  'I’m not asking him to become Gavin Newsom,' she said, referring to the Democratic governor of California. 'I’m asking him to be more in line with the beliefs of more of the people.'"

Good luck with that.  Again, Florida's governor was not doing anything that he was not inclined to do in the first place.  The nastier he could be, and the more he could indulge his bottomless desire to bully the weak, the happier he became (even if he could never quite master turning internal feelings of happiness into a human smile).

Even worse, because of the egomania that drives people like DeSantis, he will surely convince himself that he has a great political future in Trump's America.  As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it after DeSantis backed down: "The nation’s gain is Florida’s loss, sadly. I fear DeSantis will continue using the state as a stage to boost his MAGA profile — just like those awfully high heels on his cowboy boots."

Florida would be facing a difficult future in any event, given its unique vulnerability to climate change as well as its dysfunctional political system.  But being governed by what amounts to the opposite of a returning conquering hero promises to make everything worse and create new problems that did not need to exist.  How soon will banning books and arresting black voters seem moderate by comparison to the acts of vengeance that the Governor will try to wreak?