Ron DeSantis’s ill-conceived campaign
The Florida governor tries to take on Trump without offending MAGA.
By Scot Lehigh, Globe Columnist

Ron DeSantis has finally thrown his hat in the presidential ring, but, alas for the Florida governor, these days that particular chapeau looks more like a political klutz’s clown cap than a refulgent Reaganesque Stetson.

That his scorn-the-mainstream-media announcement became a glitch-fest staged in Elon Musk’s Twitter habitat shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, since DeSantis’s eye-catching November reelection victory, his trajectory has been from stuntman to stumblebum.

He’s running for president as Donald Trump without jammed-to-capacity overhead bins of personal baggage, a man who cannot just rally the MAGA faithful to the GOP banner but also appeal to alienated independents who have left Trump and aren’t going back.

DeSantis’s private pitch is that Trump can’t win. That we know because a reporter from The New York Times listened in on a recent call the Florida governor had with his donors and backers. Here’s what he told them: “You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing: Biden, Trump, and me. And I think, of those three, two have a chance to get elected president — Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states, which is not great for the former president and probably insurmountable, because people aren’t going to change their view of him.’’

Trump, of course, has fired back, listing the various reasons he thinks DeSantis can’t win: He is disloyal (to Trump, that is) and during his time in Congress was a disciple of that “horrible RINO Paul Ryan.’’ And this: “Also, he desperately needs a personality transplant and, to the best of my knowledge, they are not medically available yet.’’

It’s hard to quarrel with that last observation, which is actually fairly funny. Even by Trumpian standards, DeSantis is a strange mix of nasty and nerdy, timorous and truculent. He’s a whiny warrior, not a happy one.

Yet it’s also hard to disagree with DeSantis’s analysis of Trump. Or his further observation that many voters would like to move on from President Biden but need “a vehicle they can get behind’’ and that “there’s just too many voters that don’t view Trump as that vehicle.’’

But here’s the key question: Why don’t they see Trump as that vehicle?

Because he’s an inveterate liar? Because prominent former members of his administration have now made it clear he is unfit for the office?

No. Sadly, those alone don’t seem to be disqualifiers.

Because even after repeatedly being told Biden had won the 2020 presidential election, Trump continued to claim, falsely, that it was stolen. And because, as part of that lie, he summoned his MAGA legions to Washington for Jan. 6, 2021, stoked them up, and sent them to “fight like hell’’ to overturn the legitimate Electoral College results.

Now, MAGA is MAGA. But non-MAGA voters understand you can’t support American democracy and the US Constitution and back for president a man who has demonstrated he puts himself above both.

That’s why Trump’s odds of winning the presidency again are probably insurmountable. But because he is courting Trump’s base, DeSantis is unwilling to speak that basic truth.

Or this one: Yes, Trump lost the 2020 election.

Even while noting that Republicans suffered electoral losses or disappointments in 2018, 2020, and 2022 and declaring that the party must “get over its culture of losing,’’ he won’t forthrightly declare that Biden beat Trump. Why? Again, because of his fear of offending MAGA, which clings to the stolen election fantasy.

Similarly, DeSantis has equivocated about the storming of the Capitol, going from an early denunciation of the violence to downplaying the stunning events of that day as something the media use “to create narratives that are negative’’ about Trump supporters. With hundreds of MAGA marauders sentenced to jail time for their role in the Trump-inspired insurrection — and with members of two far-right militia groups now having been convicted of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the attack — that’s a hard stance to maintain.

DeSantis appears to be operating according to the adage that he who kills the king seldom wears the crown. That is, to be hoping other candidates or outside events will dethrone the MAGA monarch, leaving him to pick up the pieces.

That’s the same cautious calculus that Trump’s Republican rivals made in the penultimate presidential primary cycle. It failed in 2016 and there’s little reason to believe it will work in 2024.

Not against a battering-ram rival like Trump. All it means is that as Trump throws everything he’s got at DeSantis, the governor will be left looking hesitant, intimidated, and unwilling to engage.

That is, not like the resolute Never Back Down Republican his super PAC imagines but instead like a cowering candidate who is afraid to speak up.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.