What DeSantis Should Learn From One of the Biggest Blunders in American Marketing

From a Washington Post column by George F. Will headlined “What DeSantis should learn from one of the biggest blunders in American marketing”:

Wednesday evening’s overthought and underprepared glitch festival on Twitter Spaces was at least a fitting coda to the preceding months. If Ron DeSantis does not win his party’s presidential nomination, his pre-announcement campaign will be remembered for making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. Beginning with many advantages, the Florida governor spent months diminishing himself by positioning himself as the New Coke of Republican politics. This has been, to say no more, a puzzling strategy.

For those unfamiliar with the most remarkable pratfall in the history of American marketing (DeSantis was 6 years old when it occurred): In April 1985, some Coca-Cola executives who had too much time on their hands decided to fix the world’s most popular soft drink. The company changed the beverage’s famously secret formula. Customers, unamused, wondered why, vociferously. After just 79 days, the original was restored to its throne, rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic. New Coke lingered until euthanized in 2002.

A Republican who might join the nomination scramble has compared DeSantis to New Coke, with Donald Trump as the original. In 1985, people who liked Coke as it was had no interest in a substitute, and people who did not like the original did not crave a tweaked imitation.

DeSantis has been marketing himself as Trump with the jagged edges filed off. But Trumpkins love their hero because of his jaggedness. And people repelled by Trump are uninterested in a smoother version of him. Besides, DeSantis is sometimes only slightly smoother.

DeSantis does not merely boast, as he is entitled to, that he has triumphed over Florida’s Democratic Party. Rather, he gloats crudely that the party is “basically a dead, rotten carcass on the side of the road.”

Now, many Americans apparently want a swaggering president who talks like that. But those Americans are, it is safe to say, not nearly a majority. They probably purr with contentment about the name of DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, which burnishes his jut-jawed, spoiling-for-a-fight persona. But, again, people who like this can vote, some of them for a third time, for the prototype. Is DeSantis content to forfeit the votes of the millions of Americans who are experiencing pugnacity fatigue?

DeSantis is unfairly faulted for not seeming to relish an essential aspect of his chosen vocation. Politics involves making huge quantities of small talk with strangers. There is something admirable about a loner in a business dominated by the professionally gregarious. Unless the loner is that way because he thinks he has nothing to learn from others. In an illuminating new book, “Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made,” Derek Leebaert says about one of the four, the combative and dyspeptic Interior Secretary Harold Ickes: “Loneliness was the isolating discovery of himself being solely right while everyone else was wrong.”

DeSantis supporters argue, plausibly, that Trump is unelectable. But Trumpkins, whom DeSantis hopes to peel away from their idol, can say four things: “Unelectable” is what was said in 2016. It was said again in 2020, when he again won but the results were rigged. And have you recently seen and heard Joe Biden? Besides, it is better to fight shoulder to shoulder with the real deal — with the classic, rather than with a new version.

The DeSantis campaign’s financial resources at the onset of the nomination contest might be the most impressive cash stash since the one accumulated in 2015 by Jeb Bush, who left the race on Feb. 20, 2016. Which means that DeSantis’s donors probably will not be decisive: In politics, too, the product matters most. Never mind New Coke. In 1957, the Ford Motor Co. put its formidable marketing might behind a new product. The Edsel expired in 1960.

DeSantis is admirably results-oriented. With blunt directness, he points to his remarkable record of enacting his agenda and says: This is why I should be president.

It should be said on his behalf that governorships are the best incubators of presidents because executives must demonstrate leadership and management skills in the service of convictions. Ronald Reagan, the most formidable president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, was, like FDR, a former governor of the nation’s most populous state.

DeSantis’s modest rhetorical talent is reassuring: He has not risen, as so many in today’s politics have, on updrafts of his own hot air. If his jutted jaw is not glass, he will receive the protracted scrutiny he has earned.

George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. His latest book, “American Happiness and Discontents,” was released in September 2021.

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