9 min read

The art of the schmooze

Ron DeSantis’ campaign is premised on accumulating elite support. But donors and lawmakers are worried about his inability to socialize.
The art of the schmooze
(Photo by Matt Johnson)

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The art of the schmooze

“One reason many people do not do well in business is because they do not do well with people,” Donald Trump and co-author Robert Kiyosaki wrote in a 2011 how-to-get-rich book. “Do you know anyone like that? A person who just can’t relate to people? He or she might be a great engineer, accountant, inventor, attorney, artist, or singer, but just can’t get along with people.”

Could he or she also be the rising-star governor of Florida?

Politics, just like business, runs on interpersonal relationships: with voters, with donors, with colleagues, with aides, with allies, with opponents. Being able to work people — to gladhand, to wine-and-dine, to kiss up to bundlers at a dinner or babies on the rope line — is important.

Which is why Washington took notice on Wednesday when Politico Playbook dropped this devastating anecdote about Ron DeSantis:

Steube, in this excerpt, is Greg Steube, the third-term Republican congressman from Florida. Earlier this week, he endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, snubbing his home-state governor DeSantis. Seven other House Republicans from Florida, one-third of the delegation, have also endorsed Trump; two more are expected to follow soon.

With the kind of political malpractice described in the above anecdote — DeSantis ignoring Steube, a potential ally, for years, only to make outreach once he needed something from him — it’s not hard to see why.

The Steube story also serves as a reminder that Trump, true to his own 2011 advice, is better at the people side of politics than he’s often given credit for. This is someone who delighted in giving White House tours to visitors, spent long hours chatting up pols in late-night phone calls (so much so that two of the biggest scandals of his presidency took place over the phone), and attended to little things like calling up a congressman in the ICU or sending allies signed news clippings to thank them for their work.

As Politico reported in 2019:

“ ‘He would literally sit on Air Force One for, like, 12 hours and go through stacks of newspapers,’ one former senior administration official said. ‘It was amazing how religious he was about his newspapers.’... To White House staffers and Cabinet members, he’ll send a signed and inscribed copy when a newspaper or magazine article makes even glancingly positive mention of their work.”

That may sound like something small, but people — especially egocentric politicians — love that stuff. Rep. Matt Gaetz, another Florida Man backing Trump over DeSantis, proudly hung one such signed clipping in his office; he traces the practice back to Trump’s days in the hospitality business. “This is the proverbial Trump gift basket waiting for you in your suite or sent to you,” he told Politico.

Of course, Trump is better known for his nastier, pugilistic side, the bombastic persona we all know from the cameras. There’s no question he has that side to him. But there’s also the people-pleasing Trump, who wants everyone in a room to like him, and who learned from his years in business how to massage egos and cultivate allies. Both personas helped Trump inspire fear and loyalty, respectively, among Republican politicians, which is paying off now as they line up to endorse him.

And then there’s DeSantis, Trump’s protégé-turned-rival in Tallahassee, who, by all accounts, sucks at the people side of politics. Like, a lot.

The “horror” stories are endless: DeSantis standing alone in a corner at fundraisers, or talking on the phone during meetings of the Florida delegation while he was in Congress, or the infamous anecdote (now immortalized in a Trump ad) about him eating pudding with his fingers in front of staff.

In Congress, colleagues say DeSantis “was quiet and mostly kept to himself; he came off to many as standoffish and aloof,” according to NBC. “He didn’t ask about colleagues’ families or try to work with them on legislation.” The governor “struggles with basic social skills,” per the Daily Beast; “he lacks charm,” reports Politico.

“He doesn’t like talking to people, and it’s showing,” a DeSantis ally — an ally! — recently told the Washington Post. These are not great things for people to say about you if your job revolves around talking to people and getting them to like you.

So far, in his pre-campaign, there are two groups raising concerns about DeSantis’ anti-social tendencies: donors and members of Congress. Both groups are full of grown-up crybabies who like to whine if they don’t feel tended to. But unfortunately for DeSantis, they also hold outsized sway in American politics — and to the theory of the case for his campaign. As Sam Adler-Bell recently wrote in the New York Times:

“[DeSantis’ path to the Republican nomination] depends on convincing a G.O.P. elite grown weary of Mr. Trump’s erratic bombast (not to mention electoral losses and legal jeopardy) that he, Mr. DeSantis, represents a more responsible alternative... To the base, Mr. DeSantis must be more Trump than Trump, and to the donors, less.”

When Adler-Bell published his essay last week, he wrote that, between the Republican base and elites, DeSantis “has had greater success” among the latter, whom he hopes will bankroll and endorse his campaign. That may still be true, but only because DeSantis is doing terribly with the base. In the past week, between the flood of lost endorsements and reports of worried donors (“what the f-ck is wrong with RD?” one reportedly asked), his elite support has taken quite a drubbing.

This is partially because these elites are pissed DeSantis won’t genuflect to them. They’re also worried about his electability after he signed a six-week abortion ban and re-ignited his feud with Mickey Mouse. “Because of his stance on abortion and book banning...myself, and a bunch of friends, are holding our powder dry,” one billionaire donor, who had been planning to back DeSantis, told the Financial Times.

Of course, DeSantis’ campaign has not yet formally begun, so there is still time for him to turn around these narratives. And it is not as though every president is a natural-born schmoozer: there’s Jimmy Carter, for example, or Barack Obama, whose aloof style similarly annoyed congressional Democrats.

In the first month of the Biden presidency, Montana Democrat Jon Tester revealed how emotional he was to have been invited by Biden to the Oval Office, after never having received an invitation from Obama, despite being a crucial Senate vote for Democrats. (Biden, although he also struggles with donor maintenance, has delighted in showing lawmakers the Oval; his other signature move, a la Trump’s news clippings, is calling up people’s mothers in pretty much any scenario.)  

Still, it is is possible to be elected president without those skills. But it will be difficult for someone like DeSantis, whose proto-campaign is premised on his capacity to rack up support from powerful donors and lawmakers whose buy-in will be needed to take Trump down. The raft of stories about him this week do not inspire confidence in that ability.

There is a long way to go; DeSantis still his time to turn things around. But if his campaign never manages to get far off the ground, remember Greg Steube: it might help explain why.

Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su’s confirmation hearing is today. (Labor Department)

White House: President Biden’s day includes a virtual meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate and an in-person sit-down with the president of Colombia. Vice President Harris has nothing on her schedule.

Senate: The Senate will vote on passage of the Fire Grants and Safety Act, which would reauthorize the U.S. Fire Administration and two grant programs for local fire departments.

  • Hearing to watch: Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su’s confirmation hearing is today. Su, who currently serves as the No. 2 at Labor, faces an uphill confirmation battle; Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Jon Tester (D-MT), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) have all declined to say if they’ll support her.

House: The House will vote on the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, which would prohibit schools that receive federal funding from allowing transgender female athletes to participate in women’s and girl’s sports. President Biden has pledged to veto the bill, which is not expected to receive a vote in the Senate.

Supreme Court: Full access to the abortion pill mifepristone will continue at least until Friday, after Justice Samuel Alito extended his temporary pause of a lower court ruling imposing restrictions on the drug’s availability. The extension gives the full Supreme Court two more days to decide whether the Fifth Circuit order should go into effect.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is facing pressure to resign. (Senate Democratic Caucus)
Michael F. writes: “I have a question that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere. If Dianne Feinstein were to resign, would it improve matters as far as the Judiciary Committee is concerned? Wouldn’t the Republicans be similarly able to block her replacement from being named to the committee? Or is there a different procedure in play once there’s a new senator from California? 
Margaret B. from Denver, CO writes: “I’ve read that the ability for Democrats to replace Sen. Feinstein on the Judiciary Committee has been blocked and that Sen. Feinstein has stated she will not step aside from her committee assignment. However, several people have been suggesting retirement for her. If she were to retire, would the Democrats be blocked from appointing a replacement?”

For context, these questions are both about Dianne Feinstein, the 89-year-old Democratic senator from California who has been away from Washington for two months recovering from shingles. Feinstein is a member of the Judiciary Committee; after facing pressure to resign her seat, she agreed to be replaced on the Judiciary panel with another Democrat so her absence wouldn’t slow down judicial confirmations.

However, resolutions to change Senate committee assignments can be filibustered, so 10 Republican senators would need to support such a plan. Not wanting to help Democrats confirm more judges, the Senate GOP blocked Democrats from temporarily subbing Feinstein out for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) on Tuesday.

The hardball move is likely to increase pressure on Feinstein to resign from the Senate entirely. But, Michael and Margaret ask, would that change anything? Could Republicans still block Democrats from adding a new member of Judiciary even if Feinstein left the Senate?

The answer is, they could — but it’s less likely they would. The procedure for shuffling committee slots remains the same if a senator resigns, but Republicans say they would treat the situation differently if Feinstein actually steps down. After all, there is little precedent for Republicans blocking committee adjustments — but there’s also little precedent for Democrats asking for a temporary change to committees in the middle of a session. Normally, if a senator is going to be absent for a long stretch of time, the senator either has to resign or the majority party has to swallow the consequences.

There is ample precedent, though, for changing committee assignments after membership of the Senate changes, which would be the case if Feinstein resigns. And several Republicans who opposed the temporary swap say they would respect that precedent.

“Traditionally that’s when the resolution has been changed — when somebody is no longer able to serve,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a key GOP leadership confidant, told Politico. “There’s never been a precedent for a temporary replacement, it’s my understanding. So if the circumstances were to change, I assume that the precedent would be applied.”

Sens. John Thune (R-SD), the No. 2 Senate Republican, and Thom Tillis (R-NC), a frequent GOP dealmaker, also suggested they would support the committee change if Feinstein resigned, making it likely such a resolution would be able to get 60 votes.

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