DeSantis is to Trump’s right on everything
Anatomy of a failed strategy
Donald Trump has a lot of flaws as a person, as a policymaker, and as a politician.
But the only criticism Ron DeSantis seems to have of him is that Trump isn’t a totally dogmatic ideologue. As criticisms go, this one does have the virtue of being true: Trump governed as a conservative who moved the policy status quo to the right, but he hasn’t spent the bulk of his career in the conservative movement, isn’t particularly steeped in the canon of conservative thought, and has from time to time been willing to toss aside conservative ideological dogma to advance his own purposes. If you’re looking for the most rigid right-winger in the universe, DeSantis is right — Trump is not your guy.
As the basis for a presidential campaign, though, it’s not very persuasive, and I think DeSantis’s inability to articulate any other critique is one reason his campaign is flailing.
One strain of electoral conventional wisdom holds that candidates need to pander to the base in order to win primaries, but we see over and over again — John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016, Joe Biden in 2020 — that relatively moderate candidates beat more extreme alternatives in primaries. The subset of people who regularly vote is more polarized than the public as a whole, and the people who vote in primaries are more polarized than the general electorate. But donors, activists, writers, intellectuals, and people who post about politics on Twitter are all even more polarized than primary voters. Both money and media hype are, of course, important for a successful campaign, so it’s not totally crazy that DeSantis is courting people who wish Trump were more extreme.
But because that’s the only group he’s courting, DeSantis is — despite the money and the hype — flaming out with voters who think it’s good that Trump maintains tactical flexibility in pursuit of the larger cause of beating the Democrats.
Trump’s only somewhat fake heterodoxy
I have somewhat mixed feelings on this subject because I never want to contribute to an exaggerated sense of Trump’s moderation. On a practical level, whatever his populist posturing, he ran a pretty hard-right administration. His Department of Health and Human Services, for example, worked day-and-night to do everything possible to kick poor people off their Medicaid coverage.
But everything is relative.
One big problem Trump had, even as he wrapped up the nomination, was that a broad swathe of conservative elites didn’t really trust him, because he is not a trustworthy person. And to swiftly lock down conservative legal elites, Trump made some ironclad promises about judicial appointments. You could imagine a world in which he instead created a unity task force of some kind that pivoted away from his campaign commitment to avoid Medicare cuts and instead endorsed Paul Ryan’s ideas. Even after the election Ryan kept pushing for this, and doing it would have won Trump a lot of good will among Capitol Hill conservatives. But he didn’t do it. If he had, I believe he would’ve lost the election. But he didn’t.
Similarly, you could imagine a world in which Trump refused to do something like the CARES Act. He could have told Nancy Pelosi that she was asking to spend far too much money and that he was insisting on much smaller boosts to Unemployment Insurance and other social programs. In exchange, she probably would have made him settle for less generous support for businesses. And ideologically orthodox conservatives would have applauded that, both on economic grounds and also because it would have supported their view that Covid was no big deal and people should just proceed with their lives as normal. And in this case, I think it’s very clear that had he done that, he would have lost by a much larger margin in 2020 and taken the GOP House majority down with him.
Of course, Trump was not always so flexible — the 2017 push to repeal the Affordable Care Act was grounded in pure conservative dogma and ended poorly for the GOP. But at times he really was flexible in his policymaking, and even more so in his rhetoric. The idea of wielding gay rights as a cudgel against Muslim immigration, for example, is something that he imported from European nativist politics and that moderated his imagine in 2016 to an extent.
The whole premise of DeSantis from the beginning has been some version of “like Trump but more effective.” But one could take that in a lot of different directions. I think Trump would have been more effective if he hadn’t plunged headlong into ACA repeal. But to DeSantis, “more effective” turns out to be exclusively “more right-wing.”
Ron DeSantis is more consistently right-wing than Trump
A key point of both strength and weakness for DeSantis as a presidential prospect is that he served in the House pre-2016 as a solid conservative with no hint of moderation. That meant, for example, plenty of politically toxic votes for Ryan-style cuts to Medicare.
That’s something the conservative donor class liked about him — he’d be more ideologically reliable than Trump. But it was also an opportunity for Trump to attack him, since even most GOP primary voters don’t like the idea of cutting Medicare. DeSantis, meanwhile, started out with a strong critique of Trump’s disorganized approach to Covid, arguing that he would have been a more forceful and coherent Covid dove. Both of those topics involved positioning DeSantis to the right of Trump, but DeSantis followed up by positioning himself to Trump’s right on basically every topic imaginable. This really odd video slamming Trump for being insufficiently anti-trans is the example that’s gotten the most attention, but he’s done it very consistently.
He also accused Trump of “turning the reins over” to Dr. Anthony Fauci during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Trump had “endorsed and tried to ram” an “amnesty" bill through Congress and vowed that — unlike the former president — he would finish building the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
In Iowa on Saturday, he hit back at Trump for saying he didn't like the term “woke” because people have a hard time defining it. “Woke is an existential threat to our society,” DeSantis said. "To say it’s not a big deal, that just shows you don’t understand what a lot of these issues are right now.”
Trump, meanwhile, suggested that the near-total abortion ban DeSantis signed in Florida is a bit too extreme.
Some of this just makes DeSantis look ridiculous, obsessing over the term “woke” rather than the substance of anything anyone cares about. But the immigration stuff is telling in a deeper way because it involves just brushing aside how conflicted most Americans’ views on immigration really are. He’s the governor of Florida, so he must be aware that there are a lot of Republicans who really admire what the Cuban-American community has built in Greater Miami and who are proud that the United States is a beacon of freedom and opportunity to people all around the world. The United States isn’t Hungary, and there’s a reason that George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were pro-immigration conservatives.
There are also reasons why the Biden administration ended up backtracking on asylum and why the public won’t put up with border chaos and worries that liberals don’t have the stomach to enforce the rules. Trump made occasional gestures and statements reflecting “softness” on immigration — including the fact that his wife is Slovenian — because you have to be totally out of touch with the spirit of America to not have some positive association with people who come here, work hard, and build better lives for themselves. Different “amnesty” ideas keep coming up in Congress because deporting millions of people who’ve been here for a very long time strikes almost everyone who looks at it as cruel and impractical. The asset Trump brings to the table here is that nobody doubts his willingness to be mean when meanness is called for, and the idea that anyone halfway normal is worried he’s too squishy is bizarre.
The vanishing electability edge
I think this trajectory of DeSantis’ campaign has been an error, but I doubt it was a mistake. What we’ve really learned here is that the backbench House member version of DeSantis is his authentic self — unlike Trump, he really is a conservative movement lifer who wants to be as rightwing as possible. Locked in a cage with Trump, “hit him from the right” is the only move that occurs to DeSantis.
This hasn’t worked, and it’s also gotten him very far away from the initial source of his appeal, which was the notion that he’d be more electable than Trump. Smart Republicans understand that Donald Trump carries a lot of non-policy baggage that weighs the party down, and they would like to lighten the load. DeSantis seemed like a strong contender in that regard, in part because the Florida GOP’s midterm performance in 2022 was so strong. The irony here, though, is that their strong performance was because DeSantis had a pretty moderate record back in that first term.
He took a very strong stand on Covid that has looked better over time. Something I remember Josh Barro saying about him early on is that there was a question as to whether that showed he was smart or it showed he was lucky. I’m going to go with lucky — the evolution of the Delta variant worked out very well for his approach, but I don’t believe DeSantis specifically foresaw that. Beyond that, there wasn’t a ton of striking conservative policymaking coming from DeSantis, in part because Florida has had Republican governors since the late-1990s and in part because the Florida GOP had a narrow majority in the legislature that included a bunch of moderates from Miami. The signature “be popular and win elections” DeSantis move was pairing his strong stance against leftist curriculum content with raising teacher salaries.
Democrats were screaming about abortion, but the GOP was already running Florida and not banning abortion. People liked that, so they elected more Republicans, and then they immediately turned around and used their larger majority to ban abortion and start defunding public education. If DeSantis had started with a huge legislative majority and enacted that agenda in his first term, there would have been backlash in 2022 and he wouldn’t have had the electability rep. But instead, he leveraged moderation into electoral wins, which were then leveraged into a high-profile presidential campaign, and has since been burning his electability to the ground.