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Are the early attacks on DeSantis hurting him or helping?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference on January 18, 2023. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

In politics as in war: One way to limit the damage your enemy might do to you is to bomb him first.

The governor of Florida is months away from declaring his candidacy for president, but the early polling (which isn’t actually “early”) makes him a co-frontrunner for the GOP nomination. He’s begun to weigh in on foreign policy. He’s schmoozing with donors. He’s dropping hints during interviews with Fox News about possibly having something to announce on the network later this year. It’s a “soft launch,” in CNN’s words. All that’s missing is a new book with a blandly inoffensive title designed to drum up public interest in the coming campaign.

Wait. DeSantis has that box checked too. 

It’d be political malpractice for his opponents, current and future, to miss this opportunity to define him before he has a chance to define himself. Polls prove that Republican voters like what they’ve seen of him thus far, but how much they’ve seen is anyone’s guess. They’ve probably heard of his war on “woke” Disney and his Martha’s Vineyard immigration stunt, and they’ve surely heard of his contempt for “Faucism” during the pandemic. But have they heard that, in a prior political life, he admired Paul Ryan and wanted to reform Social Security and Medicare?

If not, they will soon.

Every candidate who’s in the race or planning to join it has an incentive to weaken him before he builds momentum. Weaken him enough and he might even opt against running. Puck reporter Tara Palmeri told Sarah Longwell that she’s already heard of Trump allies spreading nasty rumors about DeSantis’ wife, Casey. Possibly Trump is trying to bait the governor into getting into the mud in hopes of disrupting DeSantis’ message that smearing fellow Republicans is tantamount to doing the libs’ dirty work for them. But I suspect the goal is to try to scare DeSantis out of the race altogether by raising the personal cost of a presidential candidacy. 

I doubt it’ll work. But if it does, it won’t be the first time that the GOP has been deprived of a promising presidential candidate for fear of the toll a campaign would take on his family.

Either way, the knives are out. In the past week or two DeSantis has taken shots from figures as diverse as Trump, Mike Pence, Kari Lake, Nikki Haley, Chris Sununu, Larry Hogan, Kristi Noem, and Sarah Palin, although of course the attacks from one of those figures were characteristically nastier than the rest. That’s bad news for the governor.

I think?

The sheer variety of jabs against him makes me wonder if they’re not inadvertently positioning him in a sweet spot in the primary.

The smart play for Trump early on is to question the governor’s populist bona fides. DeSantis probably can’t win if primary voters come to think of him as a “traditional” Republican, even if it helps him consolidate the conservative vote and leads to a two-man race with Trump. He needs a healthy share of MAGA populists to stand a chance.

And Trump recognizes that. Along with deriding DeSantis as Paul Ryan 2.0 on entitlements, he’s begun challenging the narrative that Florida was a bastion of freedom during the pandemic under the governor’s leadership. If he were to stick to those points and refrain from insulting DeSantis, who’s well-liked by most Trump voters, he’d be off to a hot start in the campaign.

But Trump is Trump. He can’t not be nasty when he feels threatened, as he’s vicious by nature and eternally insecure about losing “dominance.” He’s destined to attack DeSantis with any weapon to hand, even at the risk of annoying his own supporters. A snake can only be a snake.

Here, for instance, is what a self-described “counterpuncher” said about an opponent who has yet to throw a punch at him.

Praising Charlie Crist in order to diminish DeSantis by comparison didn’t go over well with some of the MAGA faithful, conditioned as they are to view warm words for the left and disdain for the right as proof of enemy status. This didn’t sit right with some either: 

Populist activists who’ve spent three years applauding DeSantis’ every move are now being told that the governor isn’t merely inferior to Trump, he’s a fraud who deserves their contempt. Which comes perilously close to calling those activists dupes and suckers.

To further sweeten the pot, Charlie Crist isn’t the only leftist whom Trump now seems to hold in higher regard than DeSantis. On Tuesday night he took a break from rage-posting about the coming primary to bolster Kim Jong-un’s complaint about the United States and South Korea holding joint military drills. In Trump’s moral universe, which divides the world neatly between those who flatter him and those who are in his way, evincing visceral contempt for DeSantis but not for Kim makes sense. But to any more or less normal human being: big yikes.

Maybe I’m wrong. After all, the Republican base craves dominance and ruthlessness in its leaders. Bloodsport at DeSantis’ expense might be Trump’s way of showing voters that if he’s willing and able to do this to the governor, he’s willing to go even further against Biden and the Democrats. It might net him more votes in the primary than it loses him.

But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

By being so harsh so soon, he risks generating sympathy for DeSantis and convincing undecideds who are already wary of a second Trump term that he’s more of a loose cannon than ever. “The name-calling has turned a lot of people off,” one Republican donor said recently of Trump’s attacks. “Let me tell you, we don’t like that.” Reminding Reaganite voters who are put off by DeSantis’ Trumpiness that he was a true blue fiscal conservative once upon a time could also help him appeal to traditional Republicans who otherwise prefer figures like Nikki Haley on the merits.

Of course, it would be bad for him to be defined as too Reaganite in a party that’s now committed to Trumpism. But that’s where Mike Pence comes in.

I wrote recently that Trump and DeSantis seem poised to transform the Republican coalition from a three-legged stool into a one-legged one. Both candidates will remain (or posture as) ardent social conservatives but they’re apt to end up in a race to the bottom to see who can ditch fiscal conservatism and defense hawkery most emphatically.

There will be a candidate in the field running on all three legs of the proverbial stool, though. Michael Richard Pence, God love him, looks set to offer himself as an avatar of the dead consensus, and unapologetically so. Get a load of this.

Pence isn’t just touching the so-called third rail. By proposing the privatization of Social Security, he’s dancing on it. “This is about leadership not politics,” one of his advisers told Semafor about his sharp break with populist orthodoxy on entitlements. “Vice President Pence is going to be honest with the American people, as he’s always been, and that means being straight with them about the need for getting our fiscal house in order.” On Wednesday, in an interview with CNBC, Pence was given the chance to back away from his earlier comments. He didn’t.

He’s steering toward the Reaganite right of Trump and DeSantis on basic fiscal responsibility. But not just on fiscal responsibility.

Pence is also siding firmly with hawks in the foreign policy debate that risks splitting the party. Less than three weeks after Russia invaded last year, he visited Poland’s border with Ukraine to meet with Ukrainian refugees. Later he condemned the “unprincipled populism” that’s led some Republicans to equivocate about the war and included this broadside at certain former running mates who shall remain nameless: “There can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists to Putin. There is only room in this movement for champions of freedom.”

On Friday, he’ll deliver a speech marking the anniversary of the invasion. Expect him to sound much more like Ronald Reagan than Donald Trump.

As for social conservatism, Pence has nothing to prove. He ended up on the ticket in 2016 because a playboy from New York needed vicarious credibility with evangelical voters and Pence’s evangelical credentials were impeccable. But even on issues like abortion, Pence has made a point of standing on conservative principle while other Republicans nervously eye a pro-choice surge at the polls. DeSantis signed a comparatively lenient 15-week abortion ban into law last year (he’s now promising that a six-week ban will follow) while Trump has worried aloud that abortion restrictions without exceptions are hurting Republicans with voters.

Not Pence. “We must not rest” until surgical abortion is banned in every state, he declared after Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer. He’s said elsewhere that he wants to outlaw abortion pills too. And he rejects the claim that there was any backlash in the midterms to new abortion laws in red states. “What I saw in the last election was that men and women who clearly articulated their position on the sanctity of life did quite well in their election,” he told The Hill in January. “And so I think going forward, it’s going to be incumbent on the men and women of our party to stand without apology for the sanctity of human life, to stand on that principle of the unalienable right to life, but also to express compassion for women that are facing crisis pregnancies.”

You want a three-legged stool? You got it. Mike Pence will be onstage at the first debate this summer offering it without apologies to what remains of the GOP’s Reaganite rump.

Which is good news for Ron DeSantis, I think.

He can’t out-populist Trump. And because he can’t, he risks looking like the “dead consensus” candidate by comparison. But if Pence is in the mix championing that dead consensus unabashedly—and even attacking DeSantis at times for failing to do so himself—then the governor doesn’t seem quite so out of touch. He may be more Reaganite than Trump, sure, but he’s less Reaganite than Pence.

The Trump-Pence dynamic makes DeSantis a sort of Goldilocks candidate. For those who worry that Republicans can’t win in 2024 if they nominate Trump because too many traditional conservatives will stay home and that they can’t win in 2024 if they nominate someone like Pence because too many populists will stay home, there’s a candidate in the field with a foot in both camps. His conservative credentials will be advertised by populist enemies, and his populist credentials will be advertised by conservative ones. And he happens to have just won reelection in Florida by nearly 20 points, proof that he’s broadly acceptable to many different constituencies.

More MAGA than Pence and the conservative wing, less crazy than Trump and the populist wing: That’s how DeSantis will triangulate. Not the worst place to be in a party that’s newly anxious about electability after a disappointing midterm and in search of a nominee about whom all factions might find something to like.

The Trump-Pence dynamic I described isn’t limited to Trump and Pence. Members of each wing of the party represented by those two men have also begun jabbing at DeSantis. 

Representing the Trump wing, Kristi Noem scoffed recently (and not for the first time) at DeSantis’ record on lockdowns, never mind that her own record isn’t as glowing as she pretends. Kari Lake, whom the governor campaigned for, smeared him by falsely alleging last week that he’s been endorsed by George Soros mere months after she celebrated his, ahem, “BDE.” Such are the things one must say and believe when one is hoping to be picked as Trump’s running mate in 2024.

It wasn’t just Lake and Noem. Some Trump diehards amplified the idiotic Soros “endorsement” while others, like Sarah Palin, complained that DeSantis should wait his turn instead of running in 2024. If you’re a populist has-been or hope-to-be whose relevance depends largely on Trump’s patronage, you have little to lose by volunteering as a surrogate against his chief rival for the nomination. At least, that is, until DeSantis builds an impressive lead in the polls and the time arrives to start kissing his ass instead.

While the Trump wing complains that DeSantis isn’t as populist as he pretends, the Pence wing is complaining that he’s too populist. Chris Sununu has criticized him repeatedly for using state power to punish businesses that oppose Republicans’ cultural agenda. “Is government going to solve a cultural issue?” he sniffed recently. “No. Good Republicans don’t believe that.” Larry Hogan complained that some of DeSantis’ educational initiatives in public schools appear “big government and authoritarian” to him, although it’s unclear who he thinks should be setting policy in those schools if not the governor and legislature of the state.

Shots at DeSantis are even coming from people who are obviously members of the Pence wing yet are desperate to convince voters that they’re members of the Trump wing. That’s how we ended up with Nikki Haley, whose most notable moment as governor of South Carolina was an act of cultural reconciliation, pretending that she believes DeSantis’ so-called “don’t say gay” law in Florida doesn’t go far enough.

If I’m right that this cross-pressure will leave DeSantis effectively in the ideological center of the primary, with something to offer all sides of the party, then he’s well-positioned. And as fate would have it, while I was writing this column, a new national poll of Republicans dropped showing the governor leading with 40 percent of the vote, nine points ahead of Trump. 

But there’s another possibility. As populists go to work on diminishing his populist credibility and conservatives go to work on diminishing his conservative credibility, DeSantis might not end up broadly acceptable to everyone. He’ll end up broadly unacceptable. He might be defined as a RINO for Trump voters and as an authoritarian for Pence voters before he even announces his candidacy, blowing him up on the launchpad and throwing the race into 2016-redux chaos. Here’s another poll that was published a few days ago. Gulp.

A new Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll released Friday exclusively to The Hill shows Trump leading DeSantis 46 percent to 23 percent. That marks a 5-point drop in support for DeSantis since last month, when he trailed Trump by 20 percentage points in the same poll.

Perhaps more alarming for DeSantis, however, is his standing in a hypothetical primary field without Trump. Thirty-nine percent of GOP voters said they would back DeSantis for the Republican nomination if Trump was not in the race, but that’s still 10 points lower than where he stood in January.

Morning Consult has also seen DeSantis’ support dip, from 33 percent earlier this month to 30 percent now. Over the same period Trump’s share of the vote rose from 47 percent to 50. The former guy is bombing the new guy, and it might indeed end up limiting how much damage the new guy can do.

But maybe that’s fitting. The two wings of the Republican Party distrust and increasingly dislike each other, and will certainly feel more strongly about it by the time the Trump-DeSantis death match is done. Nothing holds the coalition together at this point except that each wing fears and loathes the Democratic Party a bit more than it does the other. It would be strange under those circumstances to have a nominee who purports to speak for everyone, as DeSantis would. A third Trump nomination would be the worst outcome, but perhaps the most appropriate one.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.