DeSantis should drop out of the prez race
He can't out Trump Trump. By staying in, he blocks the opportunity for a true rival and competitor to emerge.
While the election season is just gearing up and nary a vote has been cast, it seems reasonably clear that Ron DeSantis’s strategy to become the Republican nominee for president rather than Donald Trump has failed and no fix is possible.
DeSantis’s strategy was to run not so much as Trump’s rival as as his successor. DeSantis’s pitch was that he was true to Trump’s populist package of grievances that, at least as of now, is the dominant force in GOP primary politics. He was the better choice than Trump in 2024, DeSantis claimed, for two reasons: greater competence in governing and less baggage in a general election.
This was never much about this pitch to convince MAGA voters to wrest their crown away from Trump and anoint DeSantis as the movement’s new tribune.
For many MAGA voters, support for Trump has become a cultural statement about themselves. Whoever first said in 2016 that a vote for Trump was an extended middle finger to the liberal establishment had a profound insight. It remains true today. And the more Trump is perceived to be under siege by the liberal establishment, the stronger continued support for him becomes as a personal cultural statement by MAGA voters. And it's hard to be more under siege than four indictments, however objectively valid some of them might be.
While Trump’s first term was chaotic, from a conservative standpoint it was productive. Conservative justices now control the Supreme Court for the first time since the New Deal. Trump’s tax cut, heavily weighted toward corporations, and regulatory forbearance had a prosperous economy going until the Covid shutdowns. Significantly, inflation-adjusted wages for blue-collar workers were going up for the first time in decades.
Trump didn’t build a wall, and Mexico didn’t pay for the few miles of it that got constructed. But, under the cover of combatting Covid, the open door for asylum seekers was considerably narrowed. Sight was partially restored to the blind eye to illegal status in the interior ordered by the Obama administration. Whether due to immigration enforcement policies or the effect of Covid on migration trends, the disorder on the border abated a bit, at least on this side of it.
DeSantis had a highly successful first term as governor and was rewarded with a resounding re-election margin. But it’s hard to claim that accomplishments at the state level eclipse those at the national level, and Trump unarguably had some, and some important ones. DeSantis’s competence argument was never going to gain much traction.
And DeSantis has blown the baggage argument by accepting and echoing Trump’s spin on it: Trump is the victim of the deep state, the weaponization of the legal system, and a hostile media that won’t tell the truth. For MAGA voters, if Trump is innocent of wrongdoing and a victim of the liberal establishment, jettisoning him because of it is letting them win. The baggage and electability argument only works if you are willing to acknowledge that a majority of the electorate has some solid reasons not to want to see Trump in the White House again.
Perhaps as the criminal cases progress, and Trump’s public behavior becomes even more bizarre, MAGA voters will start looking for a successor. But the odds on that seem extraordinarily long. By staying in the race, however, DeSantis stifles the opportunity for some other candidate to rise not as an aspiring Trump successor, but as a true rival and competitor who offers GOP voters a different approach and direction for a party badly in need of one.
Now, I easily and fully confess that it is markedly strange to argue that the candidate solidly and consistently polling second should withdraw to see whether someone currently struggling to get out of single digits can emerge as a true rival and competitor to Trump. But if DeSantis can’t out Trump Trump, his continued presence as the clear second placer merely clogs the path for other candidates. If DeSantis stays in the race, he will mostly serve as a blocker for Trump against other candidates.
If DeSantis got out, who might have a chance to emerge as a true rival and competitor? Probably not a clear Trump critic, such as Chris Christie, although Christie is serving a very useful purpose as the deliverer of tough but important truths that an unreceptive audience needs to hear. Thus far, Nikki Haley seems to be doing the best job of charting a different approach and direction without alienating the MAGA faithful. She might have a shot at winning the nomination without destroying her chances of prevailing in the general election.
A Trump, Haley, Christie primary would be a productive exercise for a GOP stuck in a rut.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.