Ron DeSantis gambled on Elon Musk and went bust

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The News

MIAMI, FL – Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced on Wednesday that he was running to be the 47th president of the United States with a mission to end a “culture of losing” on the right, and overhaul a federal government that triggered “authoritarian” attempts to restrict Americans’ rights during the pandemic.

After some technical difficulties, that is.

The first 25 minutes of the much-anticipated event — co-hosted by Elon Musk and David Sacks on Twitter Spaces — were widely panned as a disaster, with glitches overtaking it to the point that Musk was forced to end the live audio stream and transfer it over to his co-host’s page.

The headlines were brutal, none worse than on Fox News, which seemed eager to highlight the governor’s misfortune on a tech platform viewed as an emerging rival for conservative news. The homepage’s top article afterwards: “Much-Hyped Ron DeSantis Presidential Announcement a Disaster on Twitter,” with a splashy photo of Musk captioned “AMATEUR HOUR.”

When DeSantis finally went on, he delivered a low-key speech to the diminished audience before joining a podcast-like discussion with his hosts and handpicked friendly guests on topics like education, immigration, Bitcoin, and Twitter.

Later that night, he appeared on Fox (at which point they transitioned to more friendly headlines). Host Trey Gowdy joked “Fox News will not crash during this interview” before jumping into a lengthy conversation. DeSantis said it was due to the large volume of listeners.

Shelby and Benjy's View

There’s no sugarcoating the first leg of DeSantis’s launch: It was a train wreck.

Worse, it was a wholly predictable one. The governor was explicitly warned by many political observers ahead of the event that he risked ceding the spotlight to Musk on a buggy platform few Americans had experience using — and that’s exactly what happened, all on the most important day of his political career to date.

It was, one unaffiliated Republican strategist said, a textbook example of Roger Ailes’ “Orchestra Pit Theory,” which the late Fox News chairman detailed in a 1988 interview: The candidate who “falls in the orchestra pit” will always lead the evening broadcasts, no matter what substantive news happens at the same forum.

“The event was over before it started,” they added.

DeSantis donors, invited to the Four Seasons in Miami for a two-day launch event, gathered for a cocktail reception during the Twitter event, listening in via an audio feed from the ballroom.

“I was surprised that Elon hadn’t failure-tested this before such an important announcement,” a donor in the room said, though they maintained that the sentiment at the cocktail hour was that it was a “non issue” for them.

It was, however, one bad day. So what did DeSantis have to say that we’ll be hearing throughout the rest of his campaign?

His remarks across his Twitter and Fox appearances were largely consistent with what he’s been teasing for months, emphasizing his electability and success in delivering conservative victories in what was until-recently an iconic swing state. In recent weeks, he’s signed a 6-week abortion ban and continued to battle Disney over the company’s criticism of a law he signed restricting discussions and material related to gender and sexuality in the classroom.

“All the things that we believe as Republicans, or as conservatives...we’ve been able to take those values ands those principles and actually turn them into reality,” he said on Fox News. “Every single day we put up big wins on the board, but we're doing that while also enjoying major political success.”

There was no big pivot to the much-anticipated direct attack on Donald Trump. But the policy themes that he returned to most all emphasized his ability to get things done on issues where Trump, left unsaid, had failed.

He pledged to declare a “national emergency” and shut down the border quickly by reinstating many of Trump’s policies and completing a wall. He also repeatedly emphasized his plans to uproot the federal bureaucracy at every level, a.k.a. the “deep state” Trump frequently railed against. Among other plans, he said he would fire FBI director Chris Wray — a Trump appointee — on day one. He claimed he could find "different leverage points under Article II” of the Constitution to bring rogue departments to heel.

“These agencies are totally out of control,” he said during his Twitter event. “There’s no accountability and we are going to bring that in a big way.”

There was also plenty of discussion around the “anti-woke” politics that are more DeSantis’ natural language than Trump’s.

"The woke mind virus is basically a form of cultural Marxism,” DeSantis said on Fox News. “At the end of the day it's an attack on the truth. And because it's a war on truth, I think we have no choice but to wage a war on woke."

It’s still a critical question for DeSantis whether this kind of talk will resonate with average voters, or whether the frequent references on Wednesday to acronyms like “DEI” and “ESG” will seem confusing to anyone but hardcore conservatives.

But that challenge starts later, when he can get his message out at all without a server crash or chorus of mocking pundits drowning it out.

Room for Disagreement

Eric Wilson, a Republican operative who specializes in tech, argued that DeSantis’ Twitter launch was the right move when going up against someone like Trump: “Beating him is going to take risks, not playing it safe with the standard template,” he tweeted. He predicted that the Florida governor’s fundraising numbers would be higher than had he done a traditional launch.

The View From Team DeSantis

“There was so much enthusiasm for Governor DeSantis’ vision for our Great American Comeback that he literally busted up the internet,” DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said in a statement. “Washington is next.”

Later on, the campaign continued to lean into the glitches: “What can we break next?” they tweeted, complete with a link to his fundraising page.

The View From Trump World

Trump’s allies reveled in the early missteps. “Glitchy. Tech issues. Uncomfortable silences. A complete failure to launch. And that’s just the candidate!” a Trump spokesperson texted amid the debacle.

Trump took a bit of a stranger route with a post on Truth Social that referenced a 2018 tweet in which he taunted Kim Jong Un with nuclear war: “'Rob,' My Red Button is bigger, better, stronger, and is working (TRUTH!), yours does not! (per my conversation with Kim Jung Un, of North Korea, soon to become my friend!).”

The former president’s team also sent out a blitz of press releases targeting the Florida governor. Topics ranged from DeSantis’ past positions on Social Security and Medicare, his opposition to policies propping up ethanol, why he’d be “the wrong choice” for places like New Hampshire and Nevada, and much more.

The View From Democrats

There was plenty of ribbing about the Twitter SNAFUs as well. “This link works,” Biden’s account tweeted, directing to a donations page. But Democrats previewed more substantive attacks as well.

“Ron DeSantis has pushed an extreme MAGA agenda focused on ripping Floridians’ freedoms away and now he wants to take that agenda nationwide,” DNC chair Jaime Harrison said. “DeSantis got his start as a co-founder of the ultra-right wing House Freedom Caucus where he supported Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare and Social Security as we know it, voted for national abortion bans, worked to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and supported Donald Trump’s tax giveaways to the biggest corporations.”