I would like to know Ron DeSantis’ opinions on major policy issues
A boring request before the takes fly
After last week’s midterms, the Great Wheel of Discourse has landed on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But even though he’s been a constant presence in the news for the past few years, I feel like I am missing obvious and crucial pieces of information about him.
It’s perhaps an odd analogy, but I found myself talking recently to a veteran of the Julián Castro presidential campaign and revisiting some of my feelings about that campaign.
Castro’s entire 2020 primary campaign was, I thought, really bad. I disagreed with his whole strategy, and I ended up maybe saying some meaner things than he deserved because I really liked the idea of Julián Castro. I thought that given his record as a pragmatic mayor of San Antonio and as HUD Secretary, he was well-positioned to occupy the Joe Biden lane of the primary and say “Obama was good, we need an ‘heir to Obama’-type nominee.” I think he could have been great, but instead Castro ended up auditioning to be Elizabeth Warren’s Vice President.
What does this have to do with DeSantis? It’s a reminder that what we knew about Castro from his time as mayor and as HUD Secretary really underdetermined how he would run. He ended up taking his campaign in a direction that I found surprising and misguided.
And by somewhat the same token, I think everyone’s impressions of DeSantis are dominated by the positions he staked out during the Covid-19 pandemic. But whatever you think of those decisions, they seem unlikely to be the front-of-mind policy debates in 2023 and 2024 and very unlikely to be top governing priorities in 2025. DeSantis has this superficial appearance of a well-defined national brand, but he hasn’t really taken positions on the kinds of issues that Republicans sometimes disagree about. That’s not a knock on him; there’s no particular reason the governor of Florida should have spent the past four years leaping into controversies about national policy issues. But if you run for president, you have to start talking about your views on national policy issues. What I make of DeSantis as a presidential candidate is going to depend in part on what he says about those issues, and I think it’s odd so many people are staking out clear positions before they hear what that is.
Ron DeSantis seems like an okay politician
Part of what’s weird about this whole conversation is that DeSantis has long occupied a liminal space in intra-conservative battles. DeSantis was an early example of a GOP primary candidate who was put over the top by a Trump endorsement, so he has clear branding as a MAGA-friendly figure. At the same time, when he scored that endorsement, he’d already served several terms in the House of Representatives. And before that, he went to Yale and Harvard Law School and served as a Navy JAG.
So he was a Trump guy, but also a guy with a normal rising star politician resume.
Absent that specific context, it’s a little hard to understand why his star would shine so much brighter than, say, Greg Abbott’s. But if Republicans want to improve their electoral fortunes, they need an alternative to Trump — an actual professional politician with a solid resume and some discipline who would be better at winning elections than a maniac. And it’s the Trump connection, the sense that RDS is a MAGA guy, that makes him an ideal alternative.
Conservative elites have decided en masse that DeSantis’ 2022 performance was amazingly good and a striking rebuke to the losses of Trump-backed candidates in key Senate races. And DeSantis did do very well. But that amounted to doing just as well as Marco Rubio. In Ohio and Georgia, we see GOP gubernatorial candidates do way better than their Senate candidates. In Texas, Abbott in 2022 ran significantly ahead of Trump in 2020. And of course in Nevada, we saw the GOP candidate elected governor even while their Senate candidate lost.
So while DeSantis certainly could be a more effective politician than Trump, he’s also being puffed up with a degree of myth-making that doesn’t really seem justified. Republicans’ best electoral performance last Tuesday was Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, and nobody is talking about him because he’s too moderate. But that raises the question of how conservative DeSantis actually is.
The GOP is in ideological flux
Trump’s gravitational influence on GOP politics has re-written the normal rules of factional division.
In the contemporary GOP, to be conservative means to be pro-Trump. So a very conservative candidate is one who claims to believe the 2020 election was stolen, while a mainstream Republican doesn’t talk about Trump much — but when he does, he says positive things. Brian Kemp in this paradigm is a somewhat moderate Republican because he was put on the spot in 2020 and stood up to Trump. That meant Trump backed a primary challenger to him, but Kemp won.
DeSantis in this view is the ideal mainstream Republican — he has never, ever criticized anything Trump has ever done, no matter how insane or criminal, but he also hasn’t explicitly endorsed the 1/6 riots or efforts to overturn elections. In other words, he’s more conservative than Kemp.
This is different from a traditional paradigm based on policy issues. Kemp responded to the Dobbs decision by pressing forward with a controversial six-week abortion ban, while DeSantis has played it much more cautious with a considerably more moderate 15-week ban.
And the Trump realignment raises lots of these big policy questions. When it came to the votes on trade deals like NAFTA or PNTR with China or DR-CAFTA, you normally saw most (but not all) Republicans in favor and most (but not all) Democrats opposed. Then Trump came along as a spokesperson for the minority faction of Republicans who agreed with most Democrats that these trade deals are bad. Which is to say that in conventional terms, Trump was a moderate. But because conservatism has been redefined in Trumpian terms, I now think an “America First” trade policy might be seen as more conservative than the traditional free market pro-trade view. Similarly, it used to be that hawkishness on foreign policy was a defining feature of the right. It still is in some circumstances. But these days I think the minority of congressional Republicans who are pro-Russia are seen as “more right-wing” than the ones who have traditional Russia hawk views.
Then there’s the confounding question of entitlement programs. Trump ran for president promising not to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. In office, he reversed himself on Medicaid and pushed hard for a Paul Ryan plan to enact draconian cuts. He also repeatedly tried to cut Social Security Disability Insurance. But he did hold the line against cutting Medicare or Social Security old-age benefits. Then after 2018, Trump stopped talking about Medicaid cuts and the Affordable Care Act repeal.
At the same time, Trump is an egomaniac. So the Trumpist faction of the party is defined not by “agreeing with Trump’s relatively moderate stances on entitlement programs” but by “agreeing to condone any kind of crazy shit that Trump does.”
It’s not really clear what DeSantis thinks
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