early and often

Could Trump Run to DeSantis’s Left in 2024?

Ron DeSantis at a joint event with Donald Trump in 2018. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As he awaits news about his challengers for the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest, Donald Trump is weighing his options for taking down intraparty opponents for the first time since 2016. And without question, the opponent he rightly fears most is the governor of his own state, Ron DeSantis. Yes, Trump can and will continue to condescendingly treat DeSantis as a loser who was nobody until the 45th president reached down in his beneficence and endorsed the then-obscure congressman in his uphill 2018 primary fight against favored gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam. But that characterization won’t matter much to Republicans whose most vivid memories of the Florida governor have been his culture-war aggressions (including his audacious attack on that woke rodent Mickey Mouse) and his very successful 2022 midterm-election performance that consummated the evolution of the once very purple Sunshine State into sort of an East Coast South Dakota.

But there’s another, more pointed way for Trump to make Republicans uneasy about DeSantis’s pre-MAGA existence: going after the political stances he took before Trump allegedly saved his career from mediocrity and defeat. And according to Rolling Stone’s Asawin Suebsoeng and Tim Dickinson, Trump is mulling an assault on DeSantis from what would conventionally be described as the left.

In other words, instead of maligning his governor as a RINO squish the way he has described most Republican rivals, Trump will go after DeSantis for supporting budget austerity, “entitlement reform,” and free trade (all positions common among hard-core pre-MAGA conservatives):

In 2013, during DeSantis’ first year in office, he voted for a far-right budget resolution that sought to balance the federal budget in just four years — twice as fast as a competing measure by [Paul] Ryan that got the Republican budget wonk lampooned as a “zombie-eyed granny starver.” 

The draconian cuts DeSantis voted for would have raised the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare to 70. It would have weakened Medicare by offering seniors “premium support” instead of comprehensive health coverage. And it would have eroded Social Security by giving recipients miserly annual adjustments for inflation. Taken together, the two measures would have cut these bedrock safety-net programs for seniors by more than $250 billion over a decade.

Trump famously abandoned austerity politics upon taking office in 2017, presiding over an orgy of tax-cutting and uninhibited spending. And while his failed assault on Obamacare included serial efforts to gut the Medicaid program that provides health care for low-income Americans, he distanced himself from the traditional GOP hunger to mess with Social Security and Medicare, safety-net programs that middle-class voters — and perhaps especially Republican retirees and near retirees — regarded as benefits they had earned.

Discarding the green eyeshade of austerity was one of several voter-pleasing steps Trump took to detoxify conservative politics. Others were abandoning free-trade shibboleths that the GOP’s white working-class base intensely disliked and downplaying a reflexive defense-hawk tendency that predictably led to unpopular “forever wars.” On all these issues, the Rolling Stone report suggests, Trump will try to depict DeSantis as an Establishment figure who would bring back the bad old days:

[O]n Russia, in particular, DeSantis sounds like a throwback, McCain-style hawk, blasting Putin as an “authoritarian gas station attendant … with some legacy nuclear weapons.” And when it comes to other aspects of his international and domestic platform, the former president has been using a familiar playbook, and appears to be sticking to it. In a throwback to 2016, he’s described DeSantis in several private conversations in recent weeks as: “Bad on trade.”

One of the ironies of the proposed Trump attack on DeSantis’s pre-MAGA posture is that in every significant respect he was in those days entirely in lockstep with his comrades of the House Freedom Caucus, later regarded as Trump’s ultra-MAGA shock troops in Congress. Back then, the HFC was more of a vanguard for the tea-party movement with its fierce advocacy of tight-fisted assaults on the New Deal–Great Society legacy. Perhaps more to the point, as the fight over Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership bid showed, HFC members are again urging budget austerity — now that it’s a Democratic administration that they allege is spending America into insolvency. Indeed, most are flirting with making entitlement reform a condition for accepting debt-limit measures necessary to head off economic calamity. Trump can’t go after DeSantis’s like-minded 2013 thinking without fragging some of his most devoted followers today.

But risks aside, the question remains whether GOP primary voters can be convinced to consider the Ron DeSantis of a bygone (if not really that bygone) era as the essential Ron DeSantis, as opposed to the savage crusader against “wokeness” he appears to be today, whose appeal to Trump’s conservative Evangelical fans is becoming an existential threat to the 45th president’s comeback. Could the governor who is battling to turn a progressive state college into a “Hillsdale of the South” really be a tedious Establishment Republican who wants to cut the Social Security checks of righteous churchgoing Republican retirees? It won’t be an easy sell. But one thing we know for sure: If Trump decides on this as his strategy, he won’t pull any punches in pursuing it. The man who in 2016 dared to insinuate that John McCain was a loser for enduring years of torture as a POW isn’t going to show any grudging respect for Ron DeSantis once he begins smiting him hip and thigh.

Could Trump Run to DeSantis’s Left in 2024?