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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What that DeSantis smile showed

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles as he concludes his closing remarks during the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, Nov. 8, 2023. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

By Michelle Cottle

And just like that, Ron DeSantis’ quest for the presidency is kaput. In a short video last week, the Florida governor looked natty in a blue suit and red tie, every hair perfectly in place as he papered over his deeply imperfect campaign. He touted his leadership and, perhaps with an eye toward running again in 2028, endorsed the Republican kingmaker, Donald Trump. It wasn’t a terrible performance, especially under the circumstances. But watching DeSantis’ now-famous awkward smile and listening to his unnatural cadence, it was hard not to think: Yeah. I can see why this guy’s candidacy is deader than disco.

I am not being mean here. OK, I am being a little bit mean, but in the service of a serious point. DeSantis is a successful governor of a major state and a smart guy with a picture-perfect family. But he is also one of those unfortunate political creatures who do not wear well, whose early promise and poll numbers fade over time: The more people saw him, the less they seemed to like him. On the presidential campaign trail, he was robotic and awkward, rude and arrogant, with the interpersonal skills of poorly designed artificial intelligence. He struck people as an all-around odd duck, and not in a good way.

For a modern presidential contender, this is the kiss of death. Popular policies, a savvy campaign strategy, a message that speaks to the moment — these things matter. And DeSantis had much to offer a conservative Republican base: his angry populism, his vilification of all the right people (Dr. Anthony Fauci, George Soros, migrants, teachers unions), his record of achievement in Florida. Let us grant him all that and more. But if the messenger has a likability problem, the rest tends to get overshadowed.

For all of DeSantis’ apparent GOP pluses, he was constantly tripping over his personal minuses. His tone-deaf remarks, like when he told a kid in Iowa that his Icee probably had a lot of sugar in it. His inability to hide his discomfort when interacting with regular Americans. The creepy smile that popped up in pretty much every debate. That quickie lip lick, where the tip of his tongue would suddenly burst into view. His visible impatience. His trouble making eye contact. His fidgeting. His explosive, gaping laugh. The peculiar rhythm of his speech — sometimes too fast, sometimes stilted and never quite right. It was … a lot. But also not enough, lacking a certain quality that says, “I am human.”

A big part of the presidency involves persuading people to believe in you, rallying support for your priorities, conveying competence, caring, strength, hope, determination, courage. You are, chiefly, a leader — not a manager, a policy wonk or a political strategist. And getting people to follow you is much harder if they find you personally off-putting.

This wasn’t Team DeSantis’ only problem, of course. His campaign’s failures, of strategy and of luck, were rich and multifaceted. But underneath them all ran this foundational flaw. To quote Trump, a viciously shrewd observer of human nature, “The problem with Ron DeSanctimonious is that he needs a personality transplant, and those are not yet available.”

Of course, political likability can be nebulous and hard to define. Voters know it when they feel it — or don’t — and typically talk about it in characterological shorthand such as a candidate being someone you want to have a beer with, who cares about people like them, who tells it like it is or, my personal favorite, who is authentic.

DeSantis didn’t come across as any of those things. For starters, by all appearances, he isn’t much of a people person. His apologists spoke gently of how he is private and not a natural glad-hander. But come on. When confronted with a roomful of humanity — whether political donors or schoolchildren — he radiated a blend of defensiveness and detachment. It’s as if he was always bracing for someone to say something unpleasant or confrontational yet never listening well enough to relax or reset in easy moments. And you could almost hear him counting the seconds until he could flee the scene.

Maybe he suspected people were looking down on him; he strikes me as a man with a chip on his shoulder about … something. Or maybe he was looking down on them. People who have worked with DeSantis have said he considers himself the smartest guy in any given room. This is not uncommon among politicians, especially the men. But he had the added problem of being unable to hide his arrogance and discomfort. Superciliousness is not a great way to win support, especially in a political party defined by its hostility toward pointy-headed know-it-alls.

This is about more than DeSantis being a smarty pants or rude or snappish. I mean, Trump has never paid much of a price for trash-talking his critics. Barack Obama was, quite fairly, accused of seeming aloof, condescending and professorial. But Obama and Trump are clearly comfortable in their own skins, and nothing may be more appealing, and reassuring, in a leader than this kind of loose-limbed self-assurance.

But DeSantis? Oy. Everything about his body language screamed, “I am uncomfortable!” Whether he was sipping a beer, one hand awkwardly perched on his hip, or standing stiffly onstage at a CNN town hall, his fingers nervously skittering across his thumb, over and over again.

Once a candidate gets stuck with the “stiff and awkward” label, it is nearly impossible to shake. Occasionally, someone finds a way to turn it into an asset, at least in the primaries. In his second run for president, the stodgy, patrician Mitt Romney wound up looking like the serious, thoughtful grown-up of the pack, and plenty of people in the old GOP liked that. Who knows? Maybe DeSantis will find his way forward in a future campaign. But this time, he just never made the gut-level connection with voters needed to let his candidacy catch fire. Instead, he found himself the target of a million memes, not to mention a satirical “Daily Show” video of him standing on a debate stage, giving himself a pep talk on how to look normal.

“Like Popeye said, I am what I am,” DeSantis declared when an NBC reporter pressed him this summer about his flagging campaign.

So true, governor. And that was the problem.

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