Did Trump peak too soon?

Presidential politics is a roller coaster ride.  Some politicians — Richard Nixon was one — uselessly plot to "peak at the right moment," but events usually dictate their own schedule.  You may recall George H.W. Bush, after the First Gulf War, was at something like an 89% approval rating in 1991.  Yet by November 1992, he lost out to a scandal-plagued small-state governor.

Last December, after taking much of the blame for the GOP's disappointing midterms, Donald Trump was passed up by Ron DeSantis in many polls and the betting odds.  His campaign was also running short on cash.

But then he caught a lucky break.  An indictment.  For any other politician this would be fatal.  For Donald Trump, who everyone should know by now is just unique, it was the best thing that could happen.  With Alvin Bragg's ridiculous case against him, there was an enormous sympathy backlash.  Trump sprinted out to a big primary lead the last two months, and now he beats Biden in the latest national polls.  There was a significant pickup in fundraising as well.

But the roller coaster may already be headed back down.  Don Trump, Jr. put the campaign in an odd place by opposing the Budweiser boycott.  The Mulvaney/Bud Light kerfuffle has been a great little triumph in the culture wars, and is right in DeSantis's wheelhouse of fighting the whole "trans" agenda.  Trump and his people, though, are obviously not comfortable working this territory.

Trump is also spending a lot of money attacking DeSantis on Social Security, from the liberal side — something DeSantis is finally pushing back on.  While he's at it, he might ask Trump, and Biden, for that matter, with Social Security broke and mandatory cuts coming in ten years, what's your plan?

At this point, there's no reason for DeSantis to change his timetable for an early summer official campaign launch.  Trump pulled ahead, but no other challenger has made any impact.  The field is clear for a head-to-head primary battle.

A lot of media people who have never worked on any campaigns imagine that DeSantis is still somehow making up his mind.  The NYT's Ross Douthat is only the worst.  In reality, DeSantis was putting together his 2024 presidential race from his earliest days in Congress.  That's how these things have to work.

Likewise, of course, Biden is running.  He has not announced, because his handlers don't want him on the campaign trail at all.  His organization is doing a great job of freezing out any Democrat challengers.  He can wait until this summer, when the news will all be about Trump vs. DeSantis.  Biden will leave the media to cover the GOP fight for months on end, while he hides out in the basement, just like last time.

Rather than coasting on his early lead, Trump should be preparing for a new challenge, one unlike anything he has faced before: a well-funded opponent running to his right.

DeSantis has already signaled he will attack Trump as a loser and will cite polls showing him the stronger candidate to tackle Biden.  He will also make Tony Fauci exhibit #1, saying Trump should have fired Fauci instead of praising him.

Expect lots of commercials showing Fauci lying about masks, vaccines, and the origins of COVID, in contrast to the governor of Florida wisely opening up his state in early 2020.

If I were DeSantis, this sort of attack would be augmented with other examples of Trump being suckered by grifters.  Steve Bannon beat the rap in the Build-the-Wall scam only because Trump pardoned him, while his co-defendants are now going to serve time.  Highlighting this episode would take Trump's best issue, his willingness to be tough on the border, and turn it against him, because he was misled by con artists.

Likewise, whatever the irregularities that occurred in 2020, there's no doubt that Sidney Powell proved to be an utter fabulist.  Trump spent a lot more time entertaining her kooky ideas than he should have.  TV commercials showing her to be an utter dolt, along with anyone who fell for her act, will play well in the first GOP contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In any event, this campaign won't really start until the first GOP debate in August.  Back in 2015, Trump found the media environment, from Fox News to most of the MSM, very friendly because he drew good ratings.  Meanwhile, his primary opponents mostly squabbled among themselves and wasted their campaign cash.  The 2024 campaign, in contrast, is going to be a long, nasty slog.  Trump will need many more lucky breaks to win, but then again, Dame Fortune has been his steady girlfriend. 

Frank Friday is an attorney in Louisville, Ky.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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