Over the weekend, ABC News published the 'newsiest' highlights of several hours' worth Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' 2018 gubernatorial debate prep footage. It's exceptionally unusual for the public to ever see this type of content, to put it mildly. I'm racking my brain to think of a single example of this happening before. It's unclear who furnished ABC (which is owned by, um, Disney) with the tapes, but it seems highly likely that a former staffer -- quite possibly someone who now supports a different 2024 candidate -- is responsible for this enormous betrayal of trust. A number of pro-Trump Congressional Republicans from Florida denounced the leak on social media:
I was on the DeSantis Debate prep team. These tapes should not have been leaked. It's low class. https://t.co/zNClyHn0iL— Byron Donalds (@ByronDonalds) May 7, 2023
Donalds told me last week that he endorsed Trump on foreign policy grounds, does not agree with Trump's recent attacks against Florida's success, and believes DeSantis has been an 'exceptional' governor. The underhanded tactics are part of this story, obviously. I'm not in a position to point fingers with any degree of confidence or certitude, but it does seem telling that two 'DeSantis 2018/Trump 2024' Republicans felt compelled to immediately come out and denounce the leak, likely drawing a fairly logical conclusion about how this looks. It's also worth noting that one of the most prominent figures running Trump's current campaign was banished from the upper echelon of DeSantisworld after being accused of leaking. In any case, someone sent politically-sacrosanct internal campaign strategy videos to a mainstream media outlet in order to make the featured candidate look bad. But another major component of this controversy is how the leaks actually do not make DeSantis look bad at all. Watch this clip and read ABC's write-up of the "revelations" they were handed. It's a testament to the governor that they couldn't find anything juicy or problematic to report, despite having access to hours of footage the then-candidate and his team assumed would never spill out into public view:
EXCLUSIVE: Don’t "piss off his voters." Footage of Ron DeSantis' 2018 debate prep sessions reveal his thoughts on dealing with Donald Trump. https://t.co/ibDeDWaKKQ pic.twitter.com/aZSXmdumBo— ABC News (@ABC) May 7, 2023
Who is going to object to any of that? Even the part where he grapples with how to handle Trump-related disagreements are entirely respectful and reasonable. The accompanying news story focuses on a dumb, years-old controversy in which DeSantis was accused by leftists of using racist dog-whistles for suggesting that his opponent (a black Democrat who has ended up with all sorts of problems after narrowly losing to DeSantis in the blue wave midterm cycle) would 'monkey up' Florida's success with Socialist policies. The bulk of the article deals with this comment and its fallout, showing DeSantis adamantly opposed legitimizing the attack in any way:
Video footage exclusively obtained by ABC News of the DeSantis team's mock debate sessions during that 2018 run for governor show him and his advisers candidly discussing how to handle their response to the "monkey" comment backlash -- with DeSantis comparing the issue to a "a mini version of Kavanaugh," an apparent reference to the firestorm that arose over sexual assault allegations leveled against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which Kavanaugh strongly denied. "If I show any weakness on that, I think I lose my base," DeSantis said during the discussions, according to the nearly two and a half hours of private 2018 debate prep footage obtained by ABC News.
"I think that I appear to be less than a leader, and so I just think I've got to come at it full throttle and say that's wrong." He wanted to come at the issue hard and "speak to those people" who felt "political correctness has gone too far," DeSantis said in the video. "Kavanaugh showed that when you say 'f--- this," DeSantis said regarding the accusations against the then-nominee. "We did such a horrible job of pushing back on all these stupid stories from the beginning. He's going to rattle off a list." And behind closed doors, DeSantis said that if he had meant the racist comment, he would have apologized. "Nobody thinks that's what you meant," an adviser off camera told DeSantis, who responded, "Right, that's a thing. I mean, if I honestly meant -- I would have apologized, I mean, because it would have been wrong. I mean, I'll man up."
As an oppo hit job, this appears to have backfired. The leak is shocking, but it didn't achieve what it was intended to. If anything, it made its target look more impressive. With DeSantis' expected presidential campaign announcement now just weeks, or even days, away, it's a sure bet that he will be running hard on the record he's established in Florida since eking out a 2018 win. He governed for four years as a strong conservative, while also delivering results on things people care about. He secured a second term by a stunning margin, winning by nearly 20 points, flipping a number of traditionally-blue counties into the red column. The red wave that fizzled nationally crashed onto Democrats in the Sunshine State, and the governor and the GOP super-majorities in Tallahassee have been extremely busy taking full advantage of that earned political capital in the just-completed legislative session:
Governor DeSantis has had so many wins over the last six months that it took him FOUR MINUTES to go through them.— DeSantis War Room 🐊 (@DeSantisWarRoom) May 7, 2023
🔥 WATCH: pic.twitter.com/LirjhnWhNd
Florida just wrapped up their legislative session. You may not agree with everything they did and DeSantis signed, but I don’t think anyone can dispute this is the most effective session in state history.— AG (@AGHamilton29) May 6, 2023
We’ve never seen anything like it. List below:https://t.co/IhNSceKJHs pic.twitter.com/7L0q2nTF5m
I personally don't agree with every last one of these agenda items and harbor various objections and misgivings about a few of them. We'll see how DeSantis defends some of them, both against legal challenges and in the court of public opinion. One of the reasons why so many progressives are pulling for Donald Trump over DeSantis in the GOP primary goes beyond their belief that Trump would be easier to beat in a general election. But they also fear that DeSantis would be far more strategic, disciplined and effective in his governance than Trump, more or less in pursuit of the same overall policies. Former Attorney General Bill Barr was recently asked by Geraldo Rivera if Trump is 'fit' to be president. Rather than giving Geraldo the answer he was looking for, Barr zeroed in on the issue of competence and effectiveness:
Is Trump fit to be president?— i/o (@monitoringbias) May 6, 2023
Bill Barr: "If you believe in his policies, he's the last person who could actually execute and achieve them. He does not have the discipline... or linear thinking... to get things done... It's a horror show when he's left to his own devices." pic.twitter.com/erm60SoOBk
As a Trump-DeSantis showdown looms, there's a striking juxtaposition between this:
In recent weeks, Governor DeSantis has been keen to point out that politicians who wish to effect change must first win their elections. The GOP’s achievements within this legislative session underscore his point. Florida is not Florida by accident. It is Florida because, for the last 28 years, the Republican Party has controlled the state’s legislature, and, for the last 24 years, it has controlled the governor’s office. This, not posting memes on Twitter, has allowed it to prohibit the taxation of any form of income, to require any tax or fee increases to receive the blessing of a supermajority of both legislative houses, to create the top fiscal and economic environment in the country, to ban affirmative action, to reject Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, to appoint six out of the state’s seven supreme court judges, to provide the sane response to Covid that attracted hundreds of thousands of émigrés during 2020 and 2021, and to accumulate all of the other policy wins that, frankly, are just too numerous to list.
...From the end of the Civil War until 2021, there were more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans. Today, the Republicans have an advantage of 454,918, the Republican governor has a 59–39 approve–disapprove rating, and the legislature has so many Republican legislators sitting in it that it could pass any legislation it wished to over a gubernatorial veto. [This] should matter when the national Republican Party is looking for a nominee to lead it into 2024... Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and gave us Joe Biden; then helped Republicans to lose the 2021 Georgia runoff, which made it difficult to check Joe Biden; and then helped Republicans to struggle in the 2022 midterms, which made it impossible for the Senate to block Biden’s terrible nominations to the judiciary and federal agencies. Ron DeSantis won his reelection by 19 points, and then set about presiding over a whirlwind of conservative policy reforms that have prompted voters in swing states such as Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and elsewhere to tell pollsters that they prefer him to both Biden and Trump. When DeSantis announces his campaign in a few weeks, he will be able to point to a record of political achievement that is unparalleled in recent memory. If they’re smart, Republican primary voters will take note.
It's hard to summarize the sheer insanity and self-destructiveness of renominating Trump for a third time in just one paragraph, but I gave it a shot.https://t.co/GMnlWbiRle pic.twitter.com/80ts9gYUV6— Jim Geraghty (@jimgeraghty) May 5, 2023
The notion that Trump couldn't possibly beat Biden next year is, I think, wrong. Look at the horrific polling for Biden that broke over the weekend. Biden is extremely vulnerable, and could get more so if a recession hits, as many experts have been predicting. But Biden's awfulness and the Democrats' leftist extremism wasn't enough for Republicans to win the sweeping victories that really should have materialized, given all the factors in their favor. And Biden already beat Trump head-to-head, by basically hiding in a cave and making the election all about whether swing voters wanted more Trump. The goal in 2024 needs to be maximizing not only the chances of winning, but expanding the scope of potential wins. And then, of course, to govern successfully. The debate over how that can be achieved, and who is best suited to carry that torch, is just getting started.
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