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With his ‘listless vessels’ controversy, DeSantis should have learned from Clinton

The Florida governor and his team are downplaying what he said about Republicans. But the “deplorables” controversy from 2016 shows why they shouldn’t.


Ron DeSantis is limping into Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate.

Polling suggests Donald Trump has expanded his lead over the Florida governor in recent months. The former president’s indictments appear to have galvanized some of his supporters. And on top of that, DeSantis has had some embarrassing moments — like the surfacing of a memo advising him on debate strategy — that speak to his reputation as an awkward and untactful politician.

And the governor’s latest spat with Trump supporters suggests he may not be cut out for the national stage. As my colleague Steve Benen noted Monday, DeSantis has come under fire from MAGA world over comments he made during an interview with The Florida Standard that appeared to liken Trump’s most vehement supporters — who hang on his every word — to “listless vessels.” 

He said: “A movement can’t be about the personality of one individual. ... If all we are is listless vessels that’s just supposed to follow, you know, whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning, that’s not going to be a durable movement.”

MAGA figures went on the attack, with some comparing the remark to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 comment depicting “half of Trump’s supporters” as bigoted “deplorables.”

Much like Clinton and her team did back then, Team DeSantis quickly went into spin mode, trying to say they weren’t speaking of Trump supporters broadly. On Fox News, DeSantis said he had been referring solely to Trump-supporting members of Congress, and his press secretary issued a similar defense

Seems like the campaign is doing some cleanup.

But Team DeSantis should have learned a lesson from Team Clinton. His super PAC is called Never Back Down, for goodness’ sake, and this is a case where he probably shouldn’t have. 

I’m reminded of what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about Clinton in 2016, in a piece headlined “Hillary Clinton Was Politically Incorrect, but She Wasn’t Wrong About Trump’s Supporters.” He cited polling indicating that many Trump supporters carried bigoted views on a host of topics: 

We know, for instance, some nearly 60 percent of Trump’s supporters hold “unfavorable views” of Islam, and 76 percent support a ban on Muslims entering the United States. We know that some 40 percent of Trump’s supporters believe blacks are more violent, more criminal, lazier, and ruder than whites. Two-thirds of Trump’s supporters believe the first black president in this country’s history is not American. These claim are not ancillary to Donald Trump’s candidacy, they are a driving force behind it.

And Coates said the relevant question was not about who should have been offended by Clinton’s characterization — but whether she was right. He wrote: 

One way of reporting on Clinton’s statement is to weigh its political cost, ask what it means for her campaign, or attempt to predict how it might affect her performance among certain groups. This path is in line with the current imperatives of political reporting and, at least for the moment, seems to be the direction of coverage. But there is another line of reporting that could be pursued—Was Hillary Clinton being truthful or not?

I think DeSantis would have done well to double down, in much the same way I think Clinton should have. Because I think he was quite accurate in his reading of the GOP if Republican voters — not just members of Congress — give in to Trump’s demands. The 2020 and 2022 elections provide ample evidence.

And while I don’t personally think DeSantis would fare much better in a national election, that’s the candidate’s case to make. And there’s at least some evidence that voters might be open to criticism of the MAGA movement. My colleague Zeeshan Aleem wrote Tuesday about an Iowa poll showing that DeSantis appears to have cut into Trump’s support in that state.

Given all that, if DeSantis were the person he (however dubiously) portrays himself to be — a straight talker, a fighter and a truth-teller — it seems like a bad look to throw rocks and hide your hand.

But he tried it with his “listless vessels” comment and faced a world of political hurt as a result. And now he’s limping into the debate as a wounded candidate, seemingly with no momentum.