Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” Follow him @DeanObeidallah@masto.ai. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
“I pity the fool who runs against President Trump,” failed GOP Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake tweeted this weekend as the former President kicked off his first 2024 presidential campaign event.
Fans of “Rocky III” will instantly recognize the iconic line that Lake, an election-denying Trump acolyte, borrowed as the same famous phrase uttered by James “Clubber” Lang, a vicious, hard-hitting boxer played in the 1982 film by Mr. T.
In a memorable scene from the film, ahead of an imminent fight with Rocky Balboa, Clubber Lang is asked by a reporter whether he hates the eponymous boxing legend, portrayed by Sylvester Stallone.
“No, I don’t hate Balboa. But I pity the fool,” Clubber Lang snarls before casting a menacing look straight into the camera.
It’s hard to know for sure who the “fool” is that Lake was referring to, but my guess would be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who seems to be biding his time ahead of a possible White House run. DeSantis appears — at least for the moment — to pose the greatest threat to Trump’s bid to repeat as the Republican Party’s presidential standard-bearer.
In the past, Trump has mocked the Florida governor as “Ron DeSanctimonious.” The former President mercilessly slammed DeSantis again on Saturday, first at a South Carolina campaign rally and then in remarks to the media. On his campaign plane, Trump berated DeSantis as “very disloyal” and accused him of “trying to rewrite history” in recent pronouncements about Covid-19 policy in Florida.
“I had governors that decided not to close a thing and that was up to them,” Trump said. He also took aim at DeSantis’ shifting position on vaccines, saying the Florida governor had “changed his tune a lot.”
DeSantis has, in fact, “changed his tune” on Covid-19.
In March 2020, in response to the rapidly spreading pandemic, the Florida governor issued an executive order closing bars and nightclubs, and urged people to follow US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines limiting gatherings on beaches to no more than 10 people.
But his recent remarks and pronouncements have veered sharply away from sensible, government-imposed Covid-19 protections in what appears to be a desperate bid to appeal to the GOP’s Covid-denying base voters ahead of an anticipated presidential run.
DeSantis has come out against lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccines and other measures meant to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The supposition by many political observers is that the about-face has largely been motivated by an impending White House bid.
But any potential run inevitably means a face-off with Trump, who is, as yet, the only Republican to have formally announced in the race. “Rocky III” marked the 40th anniversary of its release last year, but the 2024 GOP nominating campaign might be Rocky vs. Clubber Lang all over again.
There’s another moment in the film that springs to mind as I consider a possible Trump vs. DeSantis showdown. That’s the scene where Clubber Lang, having lost his boxing title, trash-talks Rocky in an effort to goad him into a fight.
Lang confronts Rocky at a press conference, publicly mocking the champ for refusing to fight a “real man,” and screaming out to the assembled crowd: “If he ain’t no coward, why won’t he fight me then?”
In many ways, it seems as if we have the same scenario playing out now, with Trump as the challenger and DeSantis as the champ — even if that stands reality on its head to some degree since Trump once occupied the White House and DeSantis would be the newbie in national politics.
But if the former President is not exactly an underdog in the White House nomination contest, he certainly has been on the ropes of late, with polls showing a certain Trump fatigue among many voters in his party who would rather someone else be the GOP nominee.
Trump is doing everything he can to taunt DeSantis into fighting him, from calling him an “average” governor to claiming that the only reason the “politically dead” DeSantis was even elected governor in the first place was because of his endorsement.
As Rocky did at first with Lang, DeSantis has tried to remain above the fray. After winning reelection as Florida governor in November, DeSantis dismissed Trump’s criticism as “noise,” explaining that “when you are getting things done, yeah, you take incoming fire. That’s just the nature of it.”
But if DeSantis runs in 2024, he’ll need to show the red meat-loving GOP base that he can punch back against Trump. And if the past is any guide, he’ll need to do that soon. If he wants evidence of the perils of holding back against Trump, he need look no further than his fellow Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio.
During the 2016 GOP presidential race, Trump and Rubio were among the Republicans vying for the opportunity to square off against the eventual Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Early in the primary campaign, Trump established himself as the GOP contender to beat.
At first, Rubio didn’t attack Trump directly. That changed when Rubio faced a “do or die” moment, finding himself in third place behind Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the delegate count, with little time to make up ground ahead of a March 2016 primary in his home state of Florida.
That’s when Rubio finally took the gloves off, calling Trump “an embarrassment” and a demagogue. But it was too little, too late for Rubio, who lost the Florida GOP primary, and ended up dropping out of the race the next day.
No one has ever accused DeSantis of being meek. He’s more than capable of firing back at Trump. He has a track record of lashing out at critics, slamming everything from the “corporate media” to Big Tech. In fact, last year DeSantis invoked another classic film, “Top Gun,” in a campaign ad to explain his battle plan in political dogfights.
Wearing a flight suit and seated in the cockpit of a fighter jet as the “Top Gov,” DeSantis revealed his “rules of engagement,” declaring, “No. 1 — don’t fire unless fired upon, but when they fire, you fire back with overwhelming force.” He continued: “No. 2 — never, ever back down from a fight.”
So far, “Top Gov” has failed to live up to either of these dictates.
Trump repeatedly opens fire upon DeSantis, who has failed to respond, with the “overwhelming force” that he vowed he would unleash. In fact, DeSantis hasn’t fired back at all. It appears the Florida governor is backing down from the fight.
Perhaps DeSantis — a Harvard Law School graduate and former federal prosecutor — is waiting to see if Trump is criminally indicted, in the hopes he doesn’t have to meet him on the field of battle. Just last week, Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis told a judge that “decisions are imminent” in her investigation into efforts by Trump and his allies to interfere in the 2020 election in Georgia.
There’s also special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Trump over the January 6, 2021, attack and the trove of classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago that might yield charges. While Trump can still legally run for president while under indictment — or even if convicted of a crime — as a practical matter it would likely be devastating to his election prospects.
But barring prosecution of the former President, if DeSantis wants to win in 2024, he can’t keep ducking Trump’s barbs. DeSantis should remember that even though in “Rocky III” the iconic fighter lost his title early in the film to the menacing and cruel Clubber Lang, the “Italian Stallion” prevailed in the end.
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But to prevail, you have to put up a fight. There could come a time when GOP voters view DeSantis’ refusal to defend himself and punch back as a sign of weakness.
The longer he is silent in the face of Trump’s barrage of punches, the more likely people will ask themselves, as Rocky’s nemesis did: If he ain’t no coward, why won’t he fight?