The furor over President Biden’s handling of sensitive documents could have an unexpected beneficiary: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
The reason is simple. While the controversy self-evidently makes Biden more vulnerable, it also ensures endless mentions of former President Trump’s own troubles with apparently classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
If there is a third option for the presidency in 2024, DeSantis is clearly best placed right now. Double trouble for Biden and Trump is good news for the recently reelected Florida governor.
“It’s not very profound, but if there are three competitors and two of them are suspected of some crime or moral shortcoming, then the one who isn’t has to look good by comparison,” said John ‘Mac’ Stipanovich, a longtime Republican operative in Florida.
Stipanovich, a critic of both DeSantis and Trump despite his decades-long association with the GOP, added of the Florida governor, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that he is setting himself up for a 2024 run.”
If DeSantis does indeed run, his first task will be to get past Trump. The reflected spotlight from the Biden documents to the Mar-a-Lago documents keeps a bad story for the former president in the news.
Trump is in legitimate danger of prosecution on obstruction charges. On at least two occasions over more than a year, the Trump team said or implied that they were returning all relevant documents in their possession while not actually doing so.
But more generally, a scenario in which both competitors in the last presidential election are besmirched — and under investigation by separate special counsels — creates an opening for an outsider.
That’s particularly the case when Trump is making scarcely credible claims about his own rectitude and Biden appears to have been caught out in a bad case of double standards.
In a newly relevant CBS “60 Minutes” interview originally broadcast last September, Biden was asked by Scott Pelley what he thought when he saw photographs of documents marked as top-secret laid out on the floor at Mar-a-Lago after an FBI raid.
Biden answered, “How that could possibly happen? How anyone could be that irresponsible?”
As of Tuesday, documents marked as classified, dating from Biden’s time as vice president, had been found in an office he used in Washington, in the garage of his Wilmington, Del., home, and elsewhere in the same house.
There are real differences between the Biden and Trump cases — most glaringly, the Biden team’s willingness to turn the documents over to the National Archies promptly, and the Trump team’s extreme resistance to doing so.
But the simplest summation — “they both did it” — is likely to fuel public cynicism and thus bolster the appeal of anyone who can stand apart.
“Whether it is DeSantis or any of the other non-Washington people — Kristi Noem or Nikki Haley — you can run against The Swamp,” said GOP consultant Doug Heye, referencing the current governor of South Dakota and the former governor of South Carolina.
“The Swamp is neither Democrat or Republican, it is Washington,” added Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Though Heye said the long-lasting significance of the documents furor could not be predicted with confidence now, it would at the very least provide ammunition for a campaign-launch speech from any other candidate.
Susan MacManus, a professor emerita at the University of South Florida and a longtime commentator on the state’s politics, sounded a similar theme.
“A lot of people say they don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch. They want fresh faces in high places,” she said. “I hear that everywhere, from both parties and from other people.”
“People were already saying they don’t see any difference,” MacManus added — and the classified documents furors have further hardened that perception.
It’s certainly true that public appetite for a second face-off between the 80-year-old Biden and the 76-year-old Trump seems very limited.
A CNBC poll released in December found that broad majorities of Americans did not want to see either man run in 2024. The poll indicated 70 percent did not want Biden to seek a second term, and 61 percent did not want Trump to try to win the White House back.
Significantly, the poll also showed that significant numbers of Republican and Democratic voters express resistance to the front-runner in their own party. A startling 57 percent of Democrats did not want Biden to run again, while 37 percent of Republicans were opposed to a Trump 2024 bid.
There are various candidates who might seek to take on the mantle of the outsider, insurgent candidate, of course.
But polls show DeSantis way out ahead of the rest of the field when it comes to Republican alternatives to Trump.
An YouGov-University of Massachusetts Amherst poll conducted earlier this month tested a multicandidate field and found Trump clinging to a 3-point lead over DeSantis, 37 percent to 34 percent. The next strongest candidate, former Vice President Mike Pence, attracted just 7 percent support.
DeSantis’s polling and fundraising strength means he doesn’t even have to enter the presidential race anytime soon.
He can, instead, sit back and wait for his rivals to slip up — a wish that has already come true.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.