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The Right Resistance: Political Endorsements – often the ‘gag’ gift you’d rather not receive

How many times have you unwrapped a gift from a coworker, family member or friend and thought to yourself, ‘Uh, thanks but no thanks, I don’t even want this thing.’

Such would be the case for a so-called “gag” gift, where the giver intentionally passes something the recipient will likely reject, but hopes to make a point with the trinket nonetheless. The giver makes the gesture thinking the person’s reaction might justify the embarrassment of the moment and everyone will still remain friends afterwards.

Political endorsements aren’t exactly “gag” gifts, yet if offered at the wrong time on the political calendar, they can provide the reverse of what the giver intended to do. Imagine you’re in the heat of a close campaign and a disreputable someone from way outside the relevance spectrum says nice things about you and offers his or her full support for your effort. How would you react? What would you say?

If you think this scenario is far-fetched, consider how former Florida governor and 2016 GOP establishment presidential candidate Jeb Bush last week nearly crossed the sensibility threshold and “endorsed” fellow Sunshine Stater Ron DeSantis in the 2024 Republican presidential race. Of course, DeSantis hasn’t officially announced he’ll even be a candidate, yet onlookers seemingly can’t help offering opinions as to the 44-year-old’s prospects.

DeSantis’s campaign brains must’ve shouted a collective “Oh No!” from within the confines of their own skulls as Bush spoke. “Don’t do it! Don’t say it!” This was one “gift” that wasn’t asked for – or wanted in today’s “He said what?” twenty-four-hour news cycle, where there’s no such thing as a meaningless off-the-cuff remark.

Does every political candidate truly want an endorsement “gift” from someone else? In an appropriately named piece titled, “Please clap: Jeb Bush throws Trump a lifeline in looming battle against DeSantis”, astute political observer W. James Antle III wrote at the Washington Examiner:

“[Jeb] Bush hailed DeSantis as a national model for the GOP when asked if his successor should run for president. ‘Who better to do it than someone who’s been outside of Washington, who’s governed effectively, who I think has shown that Florida can be a model for the future of our country?’ the son and brother of presidents said.

“For Trump, who is trying to recapture the magic of a populist platform skewering the Bush-era GOP’s positions on trade, immigration, and foreign policy, this praise amplifies the argument he is trying to make. In this telling, DeSantis is a Trump imitator boosted by all the people in the Republican Party who hate Trump. That should give rank-and-file MAGA Republicans pause, the former president contends.

“A once highly coveted Bush endorsement is now a seal of disapproval. Jeb recognized his new Typhoid Mary status with portions of the base and pivoted quickly. ‘I was praising, not endorsing,’ Bush clarified. Trump, by contrast, wants to make Bush DeSantis’s running mate.”

This is a serious subject yet I couldn’t help but chuckle at the notion that some believe Ron DeSantis is like Jeb Bush – or George W. Bush. Jeb! is about as wishy-washy and “woke” as a Republican could get, never says anything controversial that might cause someone to dislike himself or the Bush family name and probably wouldn’t be caught dead sticking his fingers in Mickey Mouse’s eyes like DeSantis just did in pushing through a revocation of Disney’s special tax and governing privileges.

During his acceptance speech on Election Night last November, DeSantis said, “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die!” I’ve watched Jeb Bush. At times I thought he was a friend of mine. But Ron DeSantis is no Jeb Bush.

Jeb Bush’s quick reversal in the above example brings to mind a famous quote from Blazing Saddles that I’ve mentioned a time or two before when the context fit: “Of course you’ll have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you.” Some praise you just don’t want. And if Trump is ultimately successful in tying DeSantis to the Bush clan, it could be lights out for Governor Ron’s prospective presidential candidacy.

It's the type of gift you pray comes with a receipt. Take it back! Take it back! Return it!

But it also dredges up a bigger issue in political campaigns. Are there those who should not endorse?

In the lead-up to last year’s federal midterm elections, much was made about the candidates Donald Trump did – and did not – endorse. Trump himself often went out of his way to tout the power of his public backing in primary races as though his say-so alone commanded an invisible army of party voters to drop whatever they were thinking and instantly transform into a “candidate X” supporter.

Most of Trump’s endorsees ended up winning their races, but that didn’t necessarily guarantee success in the much trickier general election. Everyone uses Pennsylvania as an example, where Trump’s chosen candidate, Mehmet Oz, waged the type of primary campaign that left his GOP rivals quite bitter – and the ill feelings lingered until the November vote when some Republicans refused to get onboard with Oz.

When this type of intra-party feud happens, the end result is a senator who is recovering from a stroke, can’t function normally, can’t perform his job duties, and then checks himself into the hospital to treat his bouts of clinical depression. I’m assuming most voters would prefer a politician with a functioning brain – but apparently not those in the Keystone State!

There were other examples of Trump’s apparently locally toxic endorsement (Georgia?). But by and large, his hand-picked candidates did very well.

But if you are running for office in a 50-50-type district in a blue state, would you want the former president to make a spectacle of his choice in the race? I’m thinking Trump’s backing would definitely bring some additional voters out who wouldn’t normally be motivated enough to bother with voting GOP, but there’s no question that he also riles up the other side, too.

There were other times when Trump’s endorsement was magic, such as in Wyoming, where Republican arch-turncoat Liz Cheney tried touting her traitorous behavior as something noble to the people of The Cowboy State, who wanted nothing of her any longer. Poor Liz; she passed herself off as a principled defender of the Constitution, but her open defiance of Trump – and his endorsement of her opponent Harriet Hageman – sealed Cheney’s fate.

Regardless of whether Trump wins the 2024 Republican presidential primary, he will no doubt continue involving himself in GOP politics, and one way or another, the establishment media will keep on covering his preferences as a kingmaker – or purported race saboteur. Trump will remain as the focal point of the GOP for as long as he chooses to be, and that will be the case until he’s unable to do so.

Aside from Trump and Jeb Bush – or any Bush or Cheney – most Republican candidates would recoil from endorsements from any Democrat. But they also would reject the “gag gift” from someone like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan as well. It’s hard to believe Romney’s stature could fall any lower than after his embarrassing 2012 loss to the imminently beatable Barack Obama, but he’s managed to descend to the depths with his constant flip-flopping on important conservative agenda items as well as having marched in a Black Lives Matter parade in the turbulent summer of 2020.

What Republican in their right mind would desire to be linked to Mitt Romney? Mitt pretended to be “severely conservative” when trying to fool GOP voters into making him the party nominee, but he’s been all over the place on political issues. Who would ever trust him?

The same goes for Ryan, whose dramatic reputational downturn initiated during the 2012 campaign as Romney’s running mate. Once considered a principled fiscal conservative, as Speaker of the House, Ryan lost much favor for his Chamber of Commerce-like avoidance of the illegal immigration issue in addition to constantly waffling on repealing Obamacare and other topics of importance to the grassroots.

Kevin McCarthy looks like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan by comparison to Ryan.

Who would accept Ryan’s endorsement? Certainly, none of the top tier contenders for the presidential nomination this year want anything to do with the “retired” one-time GOP leader – unless they sought to associate with losing, capitulation and getting rolled by the Democrats. Nancy Pelosi understood that she could toy with Ryan, and his standing hasn’t improved since he left Washington.

There are other establishment figures who should shy away from endorsing. How about Mitch McConnell?

There’s no question that some gifts you just don’t want, and this definitely includes some political endorsements. The conservative grassroots is suspicious of the establishment enough as it is, so no candidate would crave the backing of someone like Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. It remains to be seen who the candidates will draw as backers for 2024.

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