Not the first or last embarrassing moment for a presidential candidate

Ron DeSantis did not have the debut he expected or wanted last night, as Twitter Spaces buckled and collapsed under the weight of the 600,000 or so people who wanted to listen in to his announcement and his interview with Elon Musk, along with other guests. 

This morning, one bunch of people are insisting this was a disastrous and consequential stumbling start that may well doom DeSantis’s campaign effort, while another bunch of people are insisting all the crash reflects is the enormous interest in the Florida governor’s presidential campaign. 

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

With that said, Musk is going to get hard, fair questions about how prepared Twitter was for an event on this scale. Meanwhile, the contention that last night was “the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to a presidential candidate” is so spectacularly inaccurate. It reflects an ignorance of recent American political history that is best explained by severe amnesia. 

Welcome to Overreaction Thursday

One of my favorite sports-talk hosts, Rich Eisen, features a weekly segment called “Overreaction Monday,” in which he and his co-hosts chew over the previous day’s results, focusing on tongue-in-cheek overreaction conclusions — any team that had a surprising win is now the new powerhouse, any team that had a surprising loss is doomed to collapse, and a glimpse of a rookie looking good in preseason-training practices is a sign that he’s destined to be the next great superstar, etc.

Welcome to Overreaction Thursday, where a surprising number of people appear ready to write the political obituary for Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign, and a lot of his fans are insisting the tech snafu was a sign of success.

DeSantis and his campaign would have preferred that the event started on time, ran smoothly, and had no tech snafus. When you tell the whole country to tune in at 6 p.m., and then lots of people do, and no one can hear anything for 25 minutes or so because of technical issues, that’s bad. It’s not fatal, but it’s bad.

But when the history of the Ron DeSantis 2024 presidential campaign is written, his announcement will be just one chapter. (Although I should repeat the observation of Chuck Todd yesterday that if DeSantis’s campaign flops, it will be a shorter history, and that debut will be a bigger part of the story.) I still believe that the key moment in the 2024 GOP presidential primary will be the first time DeSantis and Donald Trump are on the same debate stage, and the first time DeSantis challenges Trump to his face, and how that exchange plays for the two men. It’s not that nothing matters until then, but it’s hard to envision anything being decisive before then.

Still, the 25 minutes of technical difficulties were unexpected, and the news media loves anything unexpected. (Recall the obsession with Senator Marco Rubio pausing and awkwardly reaching for water during his response to the State of the Union back in 2013. We are so used to the scripted, prearranged, and prepared, that anything that comes along that is genuinely unanticipated becomes the focus of attention.)

The tech snafu gave the national press the surprising story it prefers — a highly anticipated presidential-campaign announcement, using a new social-media venue, was paralyzed by technical problems for nearly a half hour:

New York Times: “the conference call from hell.”

Semafor: “Ron DeSantis gambled on Elon Musk and went bust.”

Politico: “DeSantis’ launch marred by horrendous tech failures.”

Axios: “Glitches hit DeSantis’ safe-space strategy.”

But in a week or two weeks, when people talk about Ron DeSantis, they’re not going to be talking about Twitter Spaces and Elon Musk. By the end of the night, DeSantis had done two scheduled interviews in traditional venues — a Fox News prime-time interview with former congressman Trey Gowdy and a radio interview with Mark Levin. Today, DeSantis is scheduled to do interviews with conservative radio hosts Erick Erickson and Dana Loesch. His campaign video on Twitter has been viewed 15 million times as of this writing. Everybody who wants to see and listen to DeSantis will have ample opportunity.

Twitter Spaces has no visual component. You can’t see the technical snafus, or DeSantis reacting with any frustration, or anything like that, and there’s no point in listening to the silence that was supposed to be filled with DeSantis’s voice. When a campaign has some brutal, defining gaffe or embarrassing moment, there’s almost always a visual component, because the moment is almost always caught on video. (See below.)

It probably wasn’t a good idea for DeSantis to choose to share the stage with a high-profile celebrity billionaire, when a campaign’s launch is supposed to be the candidate’s moment, focused entirely upon what he would do if elected.

Following on formatting issues, it is a mistake to dilute DeSantis with two co-hosts AND questions from the audience. Twitter users checking in to hear from the newest Republican presidential candidate about his plan for America instead got to hear VC guy David Sacks blathering ten times as much as his hosting duties called for and cameos from GOP representative Thomas Massie calling in to rhapsodize about how much he enjoys his Tesla. This was not a smart use of time and extremely limited voter attention. Everyone wanted to hear more from DeSantis. A loose chat like this giving guests 25 percent of the airtime shows DeSantis in his least effective light, for the simple reason that he’s not much of a casual conversationalist — a dorm-room bull session with all of the “session” and none of the “bull.”

On the DeSantis side, his defenders quickly insisted that the tech issues were reflective of the overwhelming interest in listening to him; apparently at one point, 682,000 people were attempting to listen. Well, yeah, of course there’s a high level of public interest in DeSantis. Right now, he’s running second in the GOP primary polls and appears to be the only Republican with a serious shot at dethroning Trump as the nominee. (Sure, someone else could, but that candidate would have to somehow jump from mid-single-digits in primary polling or lower to a majority of delegates in less than a year.) DeSantis has been one of the most high-profile and controversial governors since at least the beginning of Covid. A lot of the modern liberal-media environment runs on narratives that require a villain to root against, and for at least three years, DeSantis has been one of their favorite villains — and the flip side of that is that a lot of conservatives see him as a hero, particularly for his approach to the pandemic. The bigger, fairer question is: Why wasn’t Twitter Spaces prepared for that number of people wanting to listen in?

No one who was contemplating voting for DeSantis is now not going to vote for him because Twitter Spaces took too long to start working last night. No one who was opposed to voting for DeSantis is going to change their mind because of last night, either.

If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail

I don’t think last night will do much to change DeSantis’s reputation, but I wonder if Elon Musk’s reputation will take a serious hit, particularly if this report from the New York Times’ Ryan Mac is accurate:

There was no planning for what are known as “site reliability issues” for the event with Mr. DeSantis, two of the people said, and workers were prepared to do whatever they could to keep the social network running.

Those Who Do Not Study History Are Condemned to Make Hyperbolic Statements

Last night, David Marcus contended, “This is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to a presidential candidate and it’s not close.”

I will skip my usual 20-minute rant about how today’s young people don’t study history and just observe that not only do I reject the contention that “this is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to a presidential candidate,” I don’t think this even makes the top ten most embarrassing moments for a presidential candidate.

In no particular order, because I know readers of this blog probably have a favorite and want it near the top, here are ten much-more-embarrassing moments for presidential candidates that I came up with, just off the top of my head:

Then–Texas governor Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third federal department he would eliminate as president. It turned out to be the Department of Energy, which, years later, he ran under President Trump.

In the 2000 race, Gary Bauer fell off a stage while attempting to flip a pancake.

Vermont governor Howard Dean’s list of states and scream.

Michael Dukakis in the tank.

John Kerry’s “bunny suit” photo at NASA.

John Edwards denying he was the father of his mistress’ child, which he later admitted he was.

Bob Dole falling off the stage in Chico, Calif., and then attempting to recover by declaring he had “fallen for Chico.”

Jeb Bush’s “please clap.”

Rubio’s odd verbatim repeating of what he just said moments earlier when challenged by Chris Christie in the New Hampshire debate.

Rudy Giuliani’s decision to hold a press conference about legal challenges to the 2020 election results at Four Seasons Landscaping outside Philadelphia. I would have also accepted whatever it was that was leaking out of Giuliani’s hair during another press conference around that time.

You could list a lot of embarrassing moments for Joe Biden, but I think his 1987 berating of a New Hampshire teacher at a town-hall meeting ranks up there as one of the most spectacularly awkward and self-destructive moments in presidential-campaign history. The question that set off Biden was, “What law school did you attend and where did you place in that class?” Biden responded:

I think I have a much higher IQ than you, I suspect. I went to law school on a full academic scholarship — the only one in my class to have full academic scholarship. The first year in law school, I decided I didn’t want to be in law school and ended up in the bottom two-thirds of my class. And then decided I wanted to stay and went back to law school and, in fact, ended up in the top half of my class. I won the international moot court competition. I was the outstanding student in the political science department at the end of my year. I graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school and 165 credits; you only needed 123 credits. I would be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours, Frank.

Besides the insufferable arrogance of bragging about how smart he is, it will probably not surprise you to learn that Biden had dramatically exaggerated his academic achievements.