For a good while now, it has been obvious that Ron DeSantis faces a strategic dilemma as he tries to play catch-up with front-running 2024 presidential rival Donald Trump. The Florida governor’s central pitch to Republican voters is that he can beat Joe Biden, whereas Trump can’t, but his best opportunity to draw a contrast with Trump is by attacking the ex-president’s right flank and going after his MAGA base, which could damage DeSantis’s “electability” down the road.
This dilemma has largely been resolved for DeSantis by Trump’s growing national lead in the polls, which is threatening to get out of hand and perhaps even tempt anti-Trump Republicans to find a different champion among the candidates flooding into a contest that Team DeSantis badly wants to make a two-horse race. The primary calendar and map are pushing DeSantis to go hard right in differentiating himself from Trump: an upset win or at least a strong showing against Trump in Iowa could destroy the sense of inevitability surrounding the 45th president’s comeback bid. And as veterans of Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign at the top of DeSantis’s effort know from experience, Iowa, with its low-turnout caucus system and large conservative Evangelical population, rewards explicitly ideological campaigns. Cruz defeated Trump in Iowa in 2016 by (according to entrance polls) beating him among “very conservative” caucus-goers (40 percent of the total) by a 44 percent to 21 percent margin and by beating him among “born-again/Evangelical” caucus-goers (64 percent of the total) by a 34 percent to 22 percent margin. The Cruz coalition beckons to DeSantis today.
And sure enough, fresh from his not-so-great campaign launch, DeSantis has abandoned his hear-no-evil disdain for Trump’s attacks and insults and is going full RINO-hunting on the man who has defined ultraconservatism in recent years. In an interview with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, the Florida governor attacked Trump harshly on COVID and crime. DeSantis has long claimed to be the nemesis of Anthony Fauci and his legions of maskers, jabbers, and shutdown commissars, but he’s now directly blaming Trump for “Fauciism”:
The difference between 2015 and ’16 and now is I, as chief executive of Florida, and he, as chief executive of the United States — we both face COVID-19. And we both responded in the way we did.
He responded by elevating Anthony Fauci and really turning the reins over to Dr. Fauci. And I think to terrible consequences for the United States. I was the leader in this country in fighting back against Fauci. We bucked him every step of the way starting in April of 2020 — whether it’s the schools, the businesses, the mandates — and our state has never done better as a result. We’re No. 1 in migration, No. 1 for growth, and we continue to see great things happen. But it required me to cut against the grain. It required me to know that every decision I made was gonna be met with opposition from the media and from the left, but you do what’s right, and you don’t let them cow you. And so, I think Fauci should have been fired. And I think the fact that Donald Trump gave Anthony Fauci a presidential commendation on Trump’s last day in office — that was a gut punch to millions of people around this country who were harmed by Fauci’s lockdowns.
And it’s not just the alleged assaults on freedom during the pandemic that DeSantis is blaming on Trump. It’s everything that followed. DeSantis said:
We all have to sit here today in 2023, look back at March of 2020, and say Fauciism was wrong. Fauciism was destructive. Fauciism has set us on this path with the CARES Act and the Fed printing money, creating inflation and creating some of the economic problems that we have today.
When he refines his rap, DeSantis will probably remind listeners that Trump was the president who signed the CARES Act. But pandemic policies aren’t the only ideological heresies DeSantis is going after: He is harshly attacking the First Step Act, Jared Kushner’s mash-up of tepid prison-reform measures with a handful of federal-sentencing-reform provisions that Trump reluctantly signed in 2018, then bragged about incessantly during his 2020 reelection campaign. The governor said:
The Trump administration … enacted a bill — basically a jailbreak bill. It’s called the First Step Act. It has allowed dangerous people out of prison who have now reoffended and really, really hurt a number of people. So one of the things I want to do as president is go to Congress and seek the repeal of the First Step Act. If you are in jail, you should serve your time.
“Jailbreak bill” was the demagogic term applied to the First Step Act by the handful of bitter-end opponents to any kind of criminal-justice reform, notably Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who famously said the U.S. had an “under-incarceration problem.”
Aside from the Shapiro interview, DeSantis is offering other signs that he has decided to veer into the “true conservative” lane to Trump’s right. He almost instantly denounced the Biden-McCarthy debt-limit deal on Fox & Friends, saying that the country was now “careening towards bankruptcy.” Trump hasn’t commented on the deal yet, though he downplayed fears of a debt default during his recent CNN Town Hall event.
We’ll know DeSantis has fully embraced the ideological over the “electability” path to the presidential nomination if he starts talking excitedly about his differences with Trump on abortion policy. DeSantis did sign a six-week abortion ban that Trump called “too harsh.” But, recognizing that a lot of conservative pundits and elites fear that abortion extremism will be a general-election disaster for Republicans in 2024, DeSantis has been very circumspect about this legislation and its significance, missing multiple opportunities to crow about it in front of audiences avid for holy war against “baby killers.” In an Iowa appearance this week, DeSantis left it to Governor Kim Reynolds, who introduced him, to point out that the Florida abortion law is identical to the law she pushed through the Iowa legislature. If DeSantis starts getting loud and proud about his abortion-banning ways in the presence of Iowa’s conservative Evangelical opinion-leaders, he will have staked his campaign on letting no one out-wingnut him — November electability be damned.
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