DeSantis Passes the Vaudeville Test

The governor of Florida played well in Peoria with a Lincoln Day speech that would serve him well should he make a run for the White House.

AP/Charlie Neibergall
Governor DeSantis on May 13, 2023 at Sioux Center, Iowa. AP/Charlie Neibergall

Governor DeSantis is taking his pre-campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on the road, practicing the Triple Lindy dive that he hopes will land him in the White House: Touting his record in Florida, grappling with President Trump, and rebutting Democratic attempts to define him.

In his Lincoln Day speech Saturday at Peoria, Mr. DeSantis delivered a focused and disciplined performance that will serve him well should he take to the hustings nationwide. He listed successes on agenda items such as schools and noted that his state does more with lower taxes than New York with a larger population.

The question “Will it play in Peoria?” has stuck in the lexicon for 140 years, outliving the old Vaudevillian, Groucho Marx, who popularized it. The meaning is simple: If a production failed with audiences in Middle America, it had to make big changes or fold up the tent.

Mr. DeSantis won’t need to rewrite his script. He just has to stick to this one, as he did by avoiding going after Mr. Trump by name, seeming to understand that when you’re fighting an 800-pound gorilla, it’s best to do it on your own terms, not engage in a contest over who can fling the most mud.

Sly with the knife, Mr. DeSantis instead lamented a “culture of losing,” invoking Mr. Trump’s most cutting insult and, as I wrote in the Sun two months ago, the one offering the Floridian’s best chance to wound his opponent by destroying his persona as a winner.

“We understand when you’re governing,” Mr. DeSantis said, “it’s not about entertainment. It’s not about building a brand. It’s not about virtue signaling on social media. It’s about winning, and it’s about producing results — and we have produced more results than anybody anywhere in the country.”

Mr. Trump will sting from these barbs and no doubt respond. When he does, he will be accepting the premise that he embodies every flaw Mr. DeSantis laid out — the equivalent of shouting, “Hey, loser,” in school and mocking the poor classmates who turn their heads.

Mr. DeSantis also displayed the good cheer that’s devastating to the caricature Democrats are trying to create of him as a stolid fascist and — like the native son of Illinois, President Reagan — parried attacks with a smile.

“I’m a little bit disappointed,” he said of Illinois’s Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, saying he “wasn’t welcome in Illinois, because I seem to remember when he was locking down this state, he sent his family to my state to live in our freedom in Florida. I didn’t say they weren’t welcome.”

The line drew applause and gave a possible presidential debate preview, with Mr. Pritzker expressing presidential aspirations, too. With his Boy Scout looks and reedy voice similar to President Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. DeSantis is poor clay for foes who wish to sculpt him into Mini Trump.

Mr. DeSantis had one flub. He mispronounced “tsunami.” The mistake itself is insignificant — President Biden has reached the Oval Office despite making a career of such flubs — but note that it didn’t bring the tidal wave of snark unleashed on Republicans like President George W. Bush.

Democrats may have held back because they’re seeking to cast Mr. DeSantis not as a dunce, but as sinister, with the left-wing press declaring him “worse than Trump,” hoping to use the same club they wielded against the former president on the next Republican in the lineup rather than going through the trouble of whittling a new one.

Another weakness was the reliance on language lifted straight from right-wing memes. References to “woke corporations” invoked just what the audience wanted them to hear, but it’s lazy rhetoric, as was the term “corporate media,” which can only help the left who seek to make corporations synonymous with sin.

Despite these quibbles, Mr. DeSantis impressed the very voters he’ll need to triumph in the primaries. At 44, he has to put on some pounds to be in the same weight class as the 800-pound gorilla, but his act played so well in Peoria, it has Republicans smiling as wide as the old Vaudevillians.

The New York Sun

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