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New York Times
15 Apr 2023

NextImg:Opinion | Why DeSantis Has to Run

The resurgence of Donald Trump in the 2024 primary polls, the unsurprising evidence that his supporters will stand by him through a prosecution, and the tentativeness of Ron DeSantis’s pre-campaign have combined to create a buzz that maybe DeSantis shouldn’t run at all. It’s been whispered by nervous donors, shouted by Trump’s supporters and lately raised by pundits of the left and right.

Thus the liberal Bill Scher, writing in The Washington Monthly, argues that Trump looks too strong, that there isn’t a clear-enough constituency for DeSantis’s promise of Trumpism without the florid drama, and that if DeSantis runs and fails, he’s more likely to end up “viciously humiliated,” like Trump’s 2016 rivals, than to set himself up as the next in line for 2028.

Then from the right, writing for The Spectator, Daniel McCarthy channels Niccolò Machiavelli to argue that while DeSantis probably will run, he would be wiser to choose a more dogged, long-term path instead — emphasizing “virtu” rather than chasing Fortune, to use Machiavelli’s language. In 2024 Trump might poison the prospects of any G.O.P. candidate who beats him, while Joe Biden could be a relatively potent incumbent. But if the Florida governor continues to build a record of conservative accomplishment in his home state, “2028 would offer a well-prepared DeSantis a clear shot.”

I think they’re both wrong, and that if DeSantis has presidential ambitions he simply has to run right now, notwithstanding all of the obstacles that they identify. My reasoning depends both on the “Fortune” that McCarthy invokes and on an argument that Scher’s piece nods to while rejecting: the idea that presidential candidates are more likely to miss their moment — as Chris Christie did when he passed on running in 2012, as Mario Cuomo did for his entire career — than they are to run too early and suffer a career-ending rebuke.

It’s true that fortune doesn’t always favor the bold. (As McCarthy notes, that phrase originates in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” where it’s uttered by an Italian warlord just before he gets killed.) But the key to the don’t-miss-your-moment argument is that when it comes to something as difficult as gaining the presidency, mostly fortune doesn’t favor anybody. Every would-be president, no matter their virtues as a politician, is inevitably a hostage to events, depending on unusual synchronicities to open a path to the White House.

A great many successful political careers never have that path open at all. A minority have it open in the narrowest way, where you can imagine threading needles and rolling lucky sixes all the way to the White House. Only a tiny number are confronted with a situation where they seem to have a strong chance, not just a long-shot possibility, before they even announce their candidacy.

That’s where DeSantis sits right now. The political betting site PredictIt places his odds of being president in 2024, expressed as a share price, at 23 cents, slightly below Trump and well below Biden, but far above everybody else. Those odds, representing a roughly 20 percent chance at the White House, sound about right to me. If you look at national polls since Trump’s indictment, DeSantis’s support has dipped only slightly; if you look at polls of early primary states he’s clearly within striking distance, Trump has a floor of support but also a lot of voters who aren’t eager to rally to him (his indictment may have solidified support, but it didn’t make his numbers soar) and DeSantis has not yet even begun to campaign. He’s in a much better position than any of Trump’s rivals ever were in 2016, and you could argue that he starts out closer to the nomination than any Republican candidate did in 2008 or 2012.

Not to run now is to throw this proximity away, in the hopes of starting out even closer four years hence. But DeSantis’s current position is itself a creation of unusual political good fortune. Yes, he’s been skillful, but that skill wouldn’t have gotten him here without events beyond anyone’s control — the Covid-19 pandemic, the woke revolution in liberal institutions, the split between Mike Pence and Trump after Jan. 6, the strength of the Florida economy, and more.

It’s obviously possible to imagine a future where fortune continues to favor DeSantis and he goes into 2028 as the prohibitive favorite. But time and chance are cruel, and there are many more paths where events conspire against him, and he wakes up in 2027 staring at PredictIt odds of 5 percent instead.

If he were at 5 percent odds right now — if Trump were leading him 75-20 in New Hampshire and Iowa rather than roughly 40-30, or if Biden’s approval ratings stood at 70 percent instead of 43 percent — I would buy the argument for waiting.

But DeSantis today is a man already graced by Fortune. And even if the goddess doesn’t always favor boldness, she takes a stern view of those to whom favor is extended who then refuse the gift.

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