The great political philosopher Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just showing up.”
Well, maybe not 80%. More like half, depending on circumstances and the political climate for a given topic or candidate. But there’s no doubt that “being there” means a lot for elected leaders, and voters are going to read into an appearance whatever they already like or hate about a politician.
For active candidates, showing up when times are tough is a no-win proposition. If they rush to the scene of some crisis, they get called pandering publicity hounds. If they don’t, it’s proof they’re out of touch and don’t care about the travails of common folks.
Consider Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance.
He got liberally roasted for not going to Fort Lauderdale last week – presumably with a bucket in one hand and a gas can in the other – to combat the massive flooding. Never mind that a whole bunch of city, county and state workers were already on it, Democrats wanted to see the state’s chief executive bailing out somebody’s backyard, or maybe filling some stranded driver’s fuel tank.
It’s not that getting on TV would have made a difference in the weather or DeSantis’ poll numbers. It’s just that being there would have sent good vibes.
DeSantis brought some of the criticism on himself by being out of town, warming up for his presidential run, when the deluge came. He then raced back to Tallahassee to sign the six-week abortion ban and dashed off for another political stop. But he knew his emergency-management people were doing their jobs and if they needed him, he has access to a phone.
Besides, the last time he went to a disaster zone, a lot of people made fun of his white wading boots.
“As governor of the state of Florida, you have an obligation to show up for your people. When you’re sending surrogates instead of showing up yourself, you’re telling people they don’t matter,” Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Nikki Fried said at a news conference.
Fried, who lost her own bid for governor last year, then played the race card, which is sort of the Democratic Party’s all-purpose ace in the hole.
“Let me tell you, if this flood had happened in Naples, if it happened in The Villages, if it happened in Polk County, he would have been there himself,” Fried said. “But because this is Broward County, and because the heavily hit parts of this area were in black communities, he didn’t show up.”
When they do show up, presidents and big time candidates need to look confident and in control, criteria DeSantis kind of flunked in Japan Monday, when he started bouncing playfully as if he were about to break into an Irish jig and flippantly evade a question about his national ambitions for 2024.
As memorable visual fumbles go, this might rank somewhere between Ted Kennedy’s bumbling inability to handle a softball Chappaquiddick question on the day he announced his presidential bid in 1980 and Howard Dean’s unhinged Iowa victory screech of 2004.
Presidents know the personal touch matters. Remember how Bill Clinton would bite his lower lip and furrow his brow to show us he felt our pain? Or how Ronald Reagan was scorned for not saying the word “AIDS” in the first six or seven years of his presidency? (Never mind that researchers all over the world were working on it, we all know a virus goes away when a president speaks its name.)
And most famously of all, George W. Bush kept reading a story about a goat to Sarasota children for about seven minutes after being told that airplanes had hit the World Trade Center. If he had panicked and run screaming from the school, Democrats would have still hated him, but Bush knew a few thousand federal, state and local authorities were responding.
DeSantis invited another personal-style critique with that abortion law. Many news reports said the legislation was “quietly signed behind closed doors” late at night.
You mean like just about every piece of legislation every governor signs or vetoes every year? Sometimes they have public ceremonies or news conferences, but isn’t that publicity-seeking?
And in fact, DeSantis put out a press release and photo of a large crowd applauding as he approved the abortion bill. Reubin Askew could have sneaked construction of the new Capitol past everybody more easily than DeSantis could have finessed the six-week abortion ban. The late hour was unusual but it was a Thursday and everybody, including the governor, wanted to get out of Tallahassee for the weekend.
As he runs for president nationwide and wages his culture war at home, DeSantis will be the most-watched governor in Florida history — not just for what he does, but for how he stages it.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at email@example.com.