The DeSantis Mini-Trump Strategy
It's not going well.
Think of yesterday as the first real day of the 2024 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
And it didn’t go well at all for Ron DeSantis.
Making his first foray into foreign policy, the Florida culture warrior managed simultaneously to look both weak and out of his depth. David Frum summed it up: “Message: Tough on drag queens. Weak on national security.”
On yesterday’s Bulwark Podcast, the Wapo’s James Hohmann said that DeSantis’s attempt to align himself with Donald Trump made him look “small and unserious.”
“It’s bad policy and bad politics,” he said. “He's being a follower, not a leader.”
DeSantis’s dismissal of Russia’s savage and illegal invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” was widely panned, even by some of his allies.
In National Review — which has been more or less a DeSantis fanzine — Noah Rothman dismantled what he called the governor’s “weak and convoluted statement” and predicted that it “is likely to haunt DeSantis in both the primary campaign and, should he make it that far, the general election.” (Others at NR, however, recognizing that turds do not polish themselves, were quick to assure readers that DeSantis’s comments shouldn’t be taken all that seriously.)
DeSantis’s rivals, and what remains of the GOP foreign policy establishment, also pushed back hard on the Trump/DeSantis Surrender Caucus, although few of them managed to mention Trump by name. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said that DeSantis had shown “a naïve and complete misunderstanding of the historical context of what’s going on.” His fellow Floridian, Marco Rubio, told an interviewer: “I don’t know what he’s trying to do or what the goal is.”
In contrast to DeSantis and Trump, Mike Pence doubled down on his defense of the American-led alliance with Ukraine: "There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican party. This is not America’s war, but if Putin is not stopped and the sovereign nation of Ukraine is not restored quickly, he will continue to move toward our NATO allies, and America would then be called upon to send our own."
Lindsey Graham went even further, comparing DeSantis to arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain. “The Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well,” said Graham. “This is an attempt by Putin to rewrite the map of Europe by force of arms.”
The NYT notes that although DeSantis did not explicitly call for cutting off aid to Ukraine, “by downplaying the stakes of the conflict to the extent he did, Mr. DeSantis angered many Republicans in the foreign policy establishment who said he had talked himself into a corner.”
Even if he were to change his mind about Ukraine, how would a President DeSantis rally the public and Congress to send billions of dollars and high-tech weapons for a mere ‘territorial dispute’ of no vital interest to America?”
(Make sure you read Will Saletan’s thorough fisking of “The Ukraine Untruths of Disingenuous DeSantis” in today’s Bulwark.)
All of this is obviously problematic for the Quasi-Also-Frontrunning GOP candidate.
But there’s another reason yesterday was a bad day for DeSantis—because it exposed one his glaring vulnerabilities.
Trump himself was quick to jump on DeSantis's comments by pointing out DeSantis’s transparent strategy: “[He's] following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants.”
Nikki Haley quickly amplified Trump’s point.
“President Trump is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him — first in his style, then on entitlement reform, and now on Ukraine. I have a different style than President Trump, and while I agree with him on most policies, I do not on those. Republicans deserve a choice, not an echo," Haley said in a statement.
This might stick, because this is the essence of the DeSantis playbook: clinging as tightly as possible to Trumpism so that he will be acceptable to the MAGAverse. That means not allowing any daylight at all between himself and Trump. Which means that DeSantis believes that the road to the presidency lies in sticking to his disciplined script as Trump’s Mini-me.
It’s a brilliant strategy, until it’s exposed. Then it just looks silly.
“What,” writes Nick Catoggio, “would you get if you asked ChatGPT to craft a Ukraine policy optimized to pander to Tucker Carlson viewers rather than to maximize American interests?”
“This. You’d get this.”
DeSantis wants voters to see him as a fighter, a punch-the-libs-in the face warrior, but what if he’s just a jumped-up chatbot? Here’s Catoggio:
DeSantis’ entire career might profitably be understood as a ChatGPT response to populist inputs. In 2012, when grassroots right-wingers were spoiling for entitlement reform, ChatRON spat out some argle-bargle about raising the retirement age. In 2022, when grassroots right-wingers were spoiling for culture war, it spat out contempt for an alphabet soup of woke acronyms (CRT, DEI, ESG …) while assuring voters that entitlements are safe.
In 2012 ChatRON would have insisted on projecting strength abroad, treating dovishness as distinctive of Democratic weakness. In 2022 it’ll mumble something about “blank checks” and ending endless wars.
It may seem sentient but it’s really just autocomplete on steroids.
So, I’m having flashbacks…
Until one night in February 2016, Marco Rubio was the future of the GOP, and a plausible alternative to Donald Trump.
But then Chris Christie unmasked him.
During a debate in New Hampshire, Christie noticed that Rubio was robotically repeating his same talking points, and he called him on it. As the Guardian reported, Rubio “quickly pivoted to his talking points, going on to repeat the same answer three times in a row in a brutal back-and-forth. About half an hour later, he repeated the same talking points yet again.”
“There it is, there it is,” Christie said. “The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
And Rubio was finished.
Exit take: If he continues his Mini-Me campaign, ChatRON can expect his own Rubio-moment.
BONUS: David Frum asks: “Is Ron DeSantis Flaming Out Already?”
He notes that the DeSantis statement on Ukraine “was everything that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his admirers could have wished for from a presumptive candidate for president.”
But he senses a much larger problem.
A number of positions that DeSantis is pushing — on abortion, guns, and education — are highly unpopular even in Florida.
Even more dangerous for his presidential prospects, writes Frum, are “the popular positions he does not hold.”
What is DeSantis’s view on health care? He doesn’t seem to have one. President Joe Biden has delivered cheap insulin to U.S. users. Good idea or not? Silence from DeSantis. There’s no DeSantis jobs policy; he hardly speaks about inflation. Homelessness? The environment? Nothing. Even on crime, DeSantis must avoid specifics, because specifics might remind his audience that Florida’s homicide numbers are worse than New York’s or California’s.
DeSantis just doesn’t seem to care much about what most voters care about. And voters in turn do not care much about what DeSantis cares most about.
The GOP schism is real
Where do Republican voters line up on all of this?
The results are mixed. Even though the Trump/DeSantis policy of Putin appeasement may be in the ascendancy, it is far from being a consensus position
A Pew poll in January found that 40 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think the United States is giving too much aid to Ukraine, a number that has been steadily rising. But 41 percent still thought that we were not giving them enough, or at the aid was “about right.”
Exit take: The decision by DeSantis to align himself with Trump is likely to push the GOP base further toward isolationism — but it won’t come without a fight.
Tucker Carlson: Useful Idiot
This. Is. Amazing. Do yourself a favor and watch.
Give us a listen
On yesterday’s Bulwark podcast, I discussed the Trump/DeSantis Surrender Caucus with the Wapo’s James Hohmann. You can listen to the whole thing here.
BONUS: Bulwark+ members can also access my weekly conversation with Mona Charen. On this edition of Just Between Us, we discuss why DeSantis's comments on Tucker Carlson could be a hinge moment of history. You can listen here.
1. Mike Pence Is Warning Us About Trump
But, writes Tom Nichols, we’re too complacent to hear it.
A former vice president of the United States identified a sitting president as a mortal danger. In another time, it would have been the Story of the Century. Instead, it was the Kerfuffle of the Week, and it is already dissolving away in the new media cycle.
2. ‘Navalny’ Won an Oscar, But Navalny and Kara-Murza Are Still in Prison
Ellen Bork and David J. Kramer write in today’s Bulwark:
As dark as the coming days may be, there are things that Washington and its allies can do to help Russia’s democrats. The most urgent is helping Ukraine win to defend its own democracy and sovereignty. Putin’s defeat in Ukraine could even lead to the release of Navalny and Kara-Murza, who, with many other like-minded Russians, would have a chance to chart a democratic, peaceful future for Russia. Until that time, we must continuously press for their release and support their call for freedom.
There are many Russians who oppose Putin’s war and are paying a serious price for their opposition. Kara-Murza and Navalny represent the possibility of a future democratic Russia—one that would no longer threaten to invade its neighbors
"There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party." - Mike Pence
Do I laugh, cry, or explode when I read this? Next he'll tell us there is no room for p***y grabbers in the Republican Party.
I would love to believe that the voters are smart, however, JVL got it right yesterday when he pointed out that far too many R voters will ignore the existential geo-political struggle because the barista at Starbuck's has she/her on her name tag, and displaying one's pronouns in public is a bridge too far.
As to Bethany Mandel.....my goodness if you can't define a term that you just wrote a book about, well, that seems a bit odd. I am just spitbaling here, but maybe her whole schtick is a grift. Hmmm, inquiring minds would like to know.