While he still claims the second spot in GOP primary polls, the distance between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and frontrunner Donald Trump keeps expanding. Republicans won’t vote in their primaries for some time, but DeSantis’ problems are widely acknowledged [Ron DeSantis’ Campaign Is Flailing, by Cameron Joseph, Politico, August 18, 2023]. Why? What could DeSantis have done differently? My answer: He should have hammered the National Question and positioned himself for 2028.
Running against Trump was always going to be tough. But DeSantis could’ve made himself a much stronger candidate. Specifically, he could have been more pro-Trump and focused on sharpening his message.
He can’t do much about the former, but he can still change the latter.
DeSantis’ chief problem: his (necessarily) fraught relationship with Trump. Prior to 2021, he and Trump were practically simpatico. DeSantis won the party’s nomination for Florida governor in 2018 thanks to Trump’s endorsement. DeSantis positioned himself as a Trump guy early in his term, adapting to the then-president’s style.
But the relationship between the two seemed to sour after Trump departed the White House. DeSantis, probably at the behest of anti-Trump donors, positioned himself as Trump’s replacement, and of course, Trump wasn’t ready to be replaced. Soon after leaving office, Trump made clear that he planned to run again in 2024. DeSantis made the bet that voters were as willing to ditch Trump as he was [Friends to foes: How Trump and DeSantis’ relationship has deteriorated over the years, by Adriana Gomez Licon, Associated Press, May 25, 2023].
That was a mistake.
Granted, tension between the two was inevitable. But DeSantis could have minimized it at least enough so that Trump didn’t see DeSantis as his mortal enemy.
DeSantis has tried to walk a fine line. He has criticized Trump, but not quite to the extent Never Trumpers want. He’s mostly stuck to barely veiled attacks that don’t mention Trump by name. He will semi-defend Trump over his legal troubles. But again, he doesn’t name Trump.
Needless to say, that middle ground pleases no one. The Never Trumpers think it’s weak, while Trump supporters think it goes too far. Who DeSantis wins over with these passive-aggressive attacks, although his supporters on social media like them, is unclear [DeSantis sharpens critique of Trump but faces huge odds, by Stephen Collinson, CNN, August 1, 2023].
Understandably, DeSantis wants to make the case for why voters should pick him instead of Trump. That would naturally result in him pointing out Trump’s failings. But DeSantis faces the problem that the base still loves Trump, as the polls attest. Voters aren’t swayed by social media videos about Trump’s not firing Anthony Fauci or Christopher Wray.
Anyone running against Trump must leap that hurdle. DeSantis doesn’t want to be Chris Christie and look like an Establishment shill, yet he wants to convince voters to support him.
Vivek Ramaswamy offers an imaginative alternative strategy. Ramaswamy is always pro-Trump. He vigorously defends him against the communist prosecutors trying to throw him in prison. He has promised to pardon Trump if elected, and he praises Trump’s record as president. He never really criticizes the former president, although at times, he explains how he will be better than Trump or finish the job Trump started. In other words, he’s implicitly making the case to Trump supporters that he can be a better version of Trump [Vivek Ramaswamy’s Challenge: Embrace Trump and Take His Supporters, by Eliza Collins and Aaron Zitner, Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2023].
And it’s working in the polls. Despite having zero political experience and a strange name, Ramaswamy is gaining on DeSantis. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has Ramawasmy just 7 points behind DeSantis.
DeSantis has likely earned permanent enmity from Trump. But he can still win Republican support with a different argument.
Indeed, his own staffers apparently recognize that he should be more pro-Trump. The leaked campaign strategy memo for the first GOP debate told the governor that one of his “musts” is to “Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack” [Defend Trump and ‘Hammer’ Ramaswamy: DeSantis Allies Reveal Debate Strategy, by Jonathan Swan et al., New York Times, August 17, 2023].
DeSantis has spoken of Trump’s legal persecution in vague terms. He hasn’t guaranteed a pardon. Worse still, he’s mocked Trump for his problems. And many of his online supporters openly relish Trump’s legal predicaments [DeSantis Jabs at Trump’s Legal Trouble as He Resets His Campaign, by Nicholas Nehamas, New York Times, July 30, 2023].
For example, DeSantis really blew it when he was asked about Trump’s turning himself in at Fulton County Jail. Instead of forcefully denouncing the politicization of the law and Democrat Witch Hunts, DeSantis awkwardly said he was glad to be at the “Field of Dreams.” He could have used the moment to great advantage, but instead he literally dropped the ball [Far away from Trump’s jail drama, Ron DeSantis and his family head to Iowa’s ‘Field of Dreams,’ by Thomas Beaumont, Associated Press, August 24, 2023].
But Republican voters strongly oppose the indictments. More than 80 percent say they are politically motivated. Trump still boasts the highest rating of “strong favorability” among all Republican candidates … and by a significant margin. The ordinary Republican wants his leaders to defend Trump, not throw a baseball at the Field of Dreams [Republican voters think Trump is electable. They may be right, by Harry Enten, CNN, August 19, 2023].
My view: DeSantis should have ignored Trump’s attacks and strongly defended him. He must make the case to voters that he stands with Trump; but that he will be a better Trump in the White House. He should start with a loud and clear promise to pardon Trump, stop subtweeting Trump, and focus on explaining how and why he would be a true America First president.
He’s never going to beat Trump in the insult game. He should try to be more like Vivek and less like Nikki Haley.
One more thing: DeSantis also lacks focus. He hasn’t hit a strong, distinctive stride. His campaign touts the rather bland “Great American Comeback”—not as captivating as Make America Great Again. But the slogan is just a symptom. Rather, he hasn’t found a central issue to propel him.
In 2016, Trump made immigration his issue. It made him the Republican nominee and then the president.
DeSantis has struggled to find that defining issue. He set out to make the China Virus and the lockdowns his chief issue, but discovered that it wasn’t a big hit. Subsequently, he’s largely downplayed that topic other than reiterating that he kept Florida open in 2020 [Private GOP Polling Data Reveals Why DeSantis’ Campaign Is Sputtering, by Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley, Rolling Stone, July 17, 2023].
So he settled on anti-Wokeness, but hasn’t reckoned the best way to sell it. Of course, anti-Wokeness is a broad topic that means different things. It can mean from anything defending Columbus Day and Confederate statues to stopping Critical Race Theory or gender ideology in schools and workplaces.
Ron DeSantis Has Big Plans for Ridding the Military of Wokeness https://t.co/Nuxo3Zrmx8— Adam Paul Laxalt (@AdamLaxalt) June 14, 2023
DeSantis has tried to make himself a star on the issue, constantly repeating the term in his speeches. He made “where Woke goes to die” a slogan for the Sunshine State. He constantly hyped his war with Disney. He even pledged to investigate Anheuser-Busch over its brief partnership with “transgender” TikToker Dylan Mulvaney to sell Bud Light [DeSantis’ Bud Light brawl marks his latest move in anti-corporate gambit, by James Oliphant, Reuters, July 28, 2023].
But the approach hasn’t inspired Republican voters as much as his campaign hoped. Polls show that Republicans overwhelmingly prefer candidates who stress Law and Order over anti-Wokeness [Are G.O.P. Voters Tiring of the War on ‘Wokeness’?, by Jonathan Weisman, New York Times, August 6, 2023].
Now DeSantis appears to be dropping the issue. He’s said that he’s “moved on” from his battle with Disney [Ron DeSantis Says He Has “Moved On” And Disney Should Drop Its Lawsuit Against Him, by Ted Johnson, Deadline, August 14, 2023]. He’s cut down on using anti-Wokeness on the campaign trail and shifted to talking more about “school choice” rather than Woke schools. His campaign theme is also focused more on attacking “Bidenomics” than the “Woke mind virus” [Where’s ‘Woke’? Republicans Test a Different Education Message, by Trip Gabriel and Nicholas Nehamas, New York Times, August 28, 2023].
The economy and fiscal issues matter to voters, of course. But they don’t set DeSantis apart from the rest of the pack. Every Republican attacks Biden because of the economy. DeSantis needs a visceral issue to make his own. It’s not an obscure matter either: it’s immigration and Law and Order.
That’s an opportunity for DeSantis. He should present himself as the man to fulfill Trump’s 2016 campaign agenda with actions to curb illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration—above all, propose (“enough is enough”!) an Immigration Moratorium.
Giving a major press conference on immigration could easily make DeSantis the candidate on the National Question.
Establishing Law and Order in a lawless America would not just encompass immigration. It would also address the growing crime and violence in our streets. It would attack the communist Soros prosecutors who care more about jailing patriots than actual criminals. And it would aim to stop the Justice Department’s Leftist vendettas. It’s a message that resonates deeply with American audiences.
DeSantis has time to correct his course. It will be a tough task to defeat Trump. But to have any hope, he must heed this (my!) advice.
DeSantis must defend Trump and adopt the National Question as his own.
Then, even if he loses next year’s primaries, he could establish himself as the GOP heir in 2028.
Washington Watcher II [Email him] is an anonymous DC insider.