DeSantis is blowing his opportunity ... and perhaps ours
Ignoring Trump, or treating him with kid gloves, has never worked.
Except among those working for other candidates, the universal consensus is that Ron DeSantis has the best chance of besting Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president. There is nearly as strong of a consensus that he is the only candidate with a chance of bringing off the feat.
Now, DeSantis isn’t my cup of tea. I’m hoping the consensus is wrong and that someone more in the Reagan-Kemp camp of optimistic conservatism gains some traction. At present, Tim Scott is the only one giving it a try.
But that’s a hope. I can’t mount a convincing argument that the consensus has misread the political landscape or misstated the odds.
And, at this point, Trump is a political emetic, as well as a dangerous demagogue. So, it is disappointing to watch DeSantis, as I see it, in the process of blowing his chance.
The big mistake DeSantis seems to be making is the same mistake the GOP has made for seven years: treating Trump with kid gloves. Everyone assumes that Trump will one day implode and that taking him on in the interim risks a fatal political backlash. So far, that day hasn’t come. Counting on it to arrive sometime between now and the Republican Convention, experience would suggest, is the political equivalent of waiting for Godot, and will be about as painful a play to watch.
DeSantis doesn’t have to trade personal insults with Trump. But he does need to make a forceful and comprehensive case that Trump shouldn’t be the GOP nominee in 2024. There are three elements to the case DeSantis could make.
The first is to point out to cultural conservatives that Trump is using them. He’s not really one of them. Which means that they can’t count on him if he is given a second term.
Cultural conservatives are the heart of the GOP primary electorate and a mainstay of Trump’s MAGA movement. Trump made a bargain with them prior to the 2016 election: Elect him and he would deliver conservative judges on issues of importance to them, such as abortion. And Trump delivered; Roe is no more.
But as with virtually everyone who made the first Trump administration sort of work, he has jettisoned the legal eagles who vetted and recruited judges for him.
Trump isn’t a cultural conservative. Certainly not in his personal life, nor in his political philosophy, to the extent he has one. There’s not a second bargain to be struck for another term big enough to justify overlooking the associated risks.
DeSantis is a cultural conservative, in his personal life and in his political philosophy, which he does have. With DeSantis, cultural conservatives don’t have to trust a bargain.
For many in the MAGA movement, support for Trump has become a cultural symbol. The pundit who first observed in 2016 that support for Trump was an extended middle finger to the liberal elites and woke ideology had an important insight. That partially explains Trump’s staying power.
DeSantis needs to make the case that Trump only really believes in Trump, which shouldn’t be that difficult a case to make. That, for cultural conservatives, he--DeSantis-- is the more authentic and trustworthy choice.
The second element is to call out Trump’s bad behavior, both in office and out. DeSantis’ reaction to Trump’s indictment for mishandling, concealing, and lying about classified material was typical of GOP officeholders who aren’t purebred toadies: Maybe Trump shouldn’t have done what he did, but the real problem is a politicized Department of Justice.
A politicized Department of Justice and FBI are problems, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. But this formulation minimizes and excuses what Trump did. That’s not only wrong substantively, it’s bad politics.
Let’s examine the supposed double standard regarding what Hillary Clinton did with classified material. She set up an unsecured and unauthorized personal server to conduct official business. Some classified material was sent to and from it. She wasn’t prosecuted.
Perhaps she should have been, although I supported the decision not to at the time. What Trump is alleged to have done is worse, by any standard. She didn’t seek to hide or keep classified material. Trump is accused of having done both and arranging for lies to be told about it.
I suppose that an argument could be mounted that since Clinton wasn’t prosecuted, Trump shouldn’t be. But because he shouldn’t be prosecuted doesn’t mean he should be the GOP nominee for president, elected, and given access to a new trove of top-secret documents.
DeSantis, because of his military service and given Trump’s lack of same, is well-positioned to call out Trump for his irresponsible handling of national security secrets. There’s a lot of pro-military sentiment in the MAGA movement, which, again, Trump uses rather than honors.
Since DeSantis is solid on the issues of most concern to GOP primary voters, he is better positioned than other candidates to make the case that Trump’s disqualifying behavior should be, in fact, disqualifying. And DeSantis is probably miscalculating if he assumes that will become obvious to the GOP primary electorate or that others will make the case for him.
The third element is that if DeSantis is the nominee, he is likely to win. And if Trump is the nominee, he is likely to lose.
DeSantis is making this case, but skips over a necessary predicate. Trump isn’t a loser unless the 2020 presidential election was legitimate and Trump, in fact, lost it.
There are things that could be done to improve ballot security and much to oppose in what Democrats want to do that would erode it. But responsible Republicans should keep these legitimate policy issues completely separate from the conspiracy theories about the electoral books being cooked and crooked.
Moreover, if it is to be true that DeSantis is more electable than Trump, he has to keep on the non-conspiratorial side of that line. Election-denialism was a big loser in 2022. If DeSantis is to gain a decisive share of the independents and disaffected Republicans who did Trump and Trumpian candidates in, he can’t equivocate or attempt to finesse this.
It might initially be an uphill slog in the GOP primaries. But if DeSantis wants to play the electability card, he really doesn’t have a choice but to take it on from the get-go.
The get-go is getting close to gone. DeSantis probably has a short time to recoup and redirect to save the Republican Party, and the rest of us, from the choice of an indicted, deeply flawed, and dangerous nominee for president.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.