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It was only a matter of time before Ron DeSantis’ rising star ran into the unmovable object of Donald Trump’s will to continue to dominate the GOP.
A spate of recent news stories has focused on the proto-feud between the past president with future ambitions, and the protégé who rode his endorsement to victory in a Florida GOP gubernatorial primary and has big ambitions of his own.
The scale of the clash shouldn’t be exaggerated — so far it mostly consists of muttering from Mar-a-Lago, and speculation that both men could end up throwing their hats in the 2024 ring. Obviously, it’s also insanely early. No one can be sure that either Trump or DeSantis will run for president two years from now. If Trump decides to make the plunge, it’s far from clear that DeSantis will. If DeSantis runs, in a field with or without Trump, no one can be sure he won’t flame out like past contenders who were highly touted early on. By the time the New Hampshire primary rolls around, it could be a battle between, say, J.D. Vance and Larry Hogan, given how wrong early prognostications have been in the past.
But the Trump-DeSantis storyline is inherently alluring, considering the chances of a collision between two men who have been allies and the possibility of the subordinate in the relationship, DeSantis, eclipsing the figure who helped to elevate him into what he is today. Whether that ever happens is unknowable, yet the spat is revealing nonetheless: Some version of what DeSantis represents has the greatest odds of coaxing the party away from Trump and forging a new political synthesis that bears the unmistakable stamp of Trump while jettisoning his flaws.
There’s simply never going to be a GOP revelation in which the rank-and-file suddenly decides, “It was a mistake to ever accommodate Donald Trump, and now we want to be the party of Adam Kinzinger.” There will be no Bourbon Restoration. The challenge to Trump will have to come from the Trump wing — at this point, more like the Trump fuselage, wing and landing gear — of the party. After Trump’s presidency, the party is more populist, focused on the culture war, resistant to media narratives and skeptical of business — and it would remain so if Trump retired tomorrow and promised never to utter another word about politics.
Although in many ways an orthodox conservative, DeSantis covers all these bases. Importantly, he’s a lightning rod for criticism from the left — now a major plus for Republican voters — and gives as good as he gets in clashes with the media. There are few causes that light up the Republican base that he doesn’t find a way to address, whether on big tech or critical race theory, and he has emerged as the party’s exemplar on the pandemic, with his strenuous opposition to lockdowns and mandates. This gives him credibility with Trump voters and the foundation to compete with Trump, not as a critic or scold, but as someone who can do it better and, in a few instances, perhaps go further.
In fact, it is likely that the most successful line of attack against a potential candidate Trump will prove, one way or the other, to come from the right.
This critique of Trump wouldn’t be that he tweeted foolish things or violated norms or disgraced himself after the 2020 election. It would be, for example, that he elevated Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, early in the pandemic and listened to his advice for too long. (Intentionally or not, DeSantis alluded to this critique when he said in a recent interview that he would have spoken out against Trump’s stay-at-home guidelines in the spring of 2020.)
The case against Trump would be that, despite all his talk of building the border wall, he didn’t get it done and left a desperately flawed immigration system intact, even though he had two years of a Republican Congress.
That he rattled China’s cage but didn’t make fundamental changes to the U.S. trading relationship and said things that were much too complimentary of President Xi Jinping.
That, finally, he lost to Joe Biden, a desperately flawed candidate who only made it into the White House because Trump made himself so unpopular.
This path would take its cues from the direction Trump has pointed in ideologically, but promise to be more consistent and effectual. This wouldn’t be the Republican Party of 2004, and it would be more hard-edged than the approach of Glenn Youngkin, the new governor of Virginia, who didn’t have to run in a primary and won in a purple state. But a more populist GOP shorn of Trump’s baggage would have considerable electoral potential.
Would DeSantis be audacious enough to run against Trump in 2024? The case against waiting until 2028 is that it’s extremely unlikely — even assuming DeSantis wins reelection this year and continues to go from strength to strength — that he’ll make it through two terms as governor with his current stature in the party intact. The issue landscape will change, and new figures will emerge. And there’s no guarantee he won’t, over the course of another term, make a serious misstep or get diminished by some event beyond his control.
On the other hand, the case against running in 2024 is that it involves the enormous risk of encountering the business end of the Trump buzz saw, which could change DeSantis’ image in the party forever. The reports are that Trump is telling people DeSantis is boring, a cardinal sin in the former president’s worldview and the kind of harsh, personal observation Trump has used to destroy other Republican challengers.
Trump took a not-so-veiled shot at DeSantis in an interview with the right-wing network OAN, hitting unnamed “gutless” politicians who won’t say whether they’ve gotten a Covid booster shot or not. DeSantis has been notably evasive on this question, and Trump was giving him a hint of things potentially to come. Few politicians will openly call members of their own party “gutless,” and that’s just a love tap from Trump.
Although it’s not the most consequential matter, the former president’s gibe also puts DeSantis in an awkward box: Continuing not to answer the booster question will seem to vindicate Trump’s critique, while answering now will seem to give in to Trump’s needling.
For the moment, though, DeSantis should take the grumbling from Trump as a compliment — the past and current master of the GOP sees a future threat arising in Florida.