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Is Ron DeSantis suffering for Donald Trump’s foreign policy sins?

The two men during happier times, 2020. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Today is day four of right-wing hawks piling on Ron DeSantis over Ukraine and I’m increasingly annoyed by the spectacle.

Even though I joined in the pile-on. Eagerly!

His critics aren’t wrong. DeSantis blithely dismissing Russia’s war of conquest as a “territorial dispute” is as disgraceful and Orwellian as we detractors claim. What rankles is watching congressional Republicans suddenly summon the nerve to flog a party leader for moral equivocation toward Russia after eight years of spinning for la grande orange.

Nothing Ron DeSantis has said, and likely ever will say, approaches the depths of despicable Lindberghian useful idiocy displayed here.

America, not Russia, is to blame for putting the world at risk and Americans, not Russians, are the true enemy of Western civilization: When I said a few weeks ago that Trump 2024 would be the most sinister political campaign in modern history, I don’t think I grasped the extent of how robustly anti-American it will be. If you thought Trump taking sides with Putin against U.S. intelligence in Helsinki was his lowest moment in politics that didn’t involve sacking a seat of government, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I can criticize DeSantis on Ukraine with a clear conscience because I recognize who the greater threat is and, with due modesty, have been outspoken about it for years. Unlike the Republican invertebrates in Washington pummeling the governor this week, I didn’t vote for Trump, or make excuses for him, or judge him fit to continue leading the party after he tried to overthrow American democracy.

None of which is to say that those who did should be biting their tongues now in the name of “equal treatment” or because DeSantis represents the party’s best hope of finally vanquishing Trump. Once the logic takes hold that his sins should be ignored or absolved for raw political reasons absent evidence of repentance, we’ll have a new cult in the making. And the right desperately needs to be done with cults, the sooner the better.

The criticism of his statement on Ukraine to Tucker Carlson is a healthy step in that direction. It’s the sheer volume of it that grates. Why have so many conservative hawks come out of the woodwork to bash DeSantis over the war?

I can’t escape the conclusion drawn by Joe Perticone in his piece yesterday for The Bulwark, “Republicans Take Out Their Long-Held Ukraine Anger on DeSantis.” Listening to prominent party figures describe themselves as “disturbed” by the governor’s position and imply that he’s an ignoramus for holding it has the distinct feel of a container under intense pressure finally failing and releasing its steam explosively.

For eight years they’ve had to pull their punches on all manner of topics lest they offend the cult leader and his snowflake devotees. When Ron DeSantis spoke up on Ukraine, they were suddenly presented with a Trumpist view unbacked by the kind of fanatic following that might make trouble for them in their next primaries if they denounced it. Free at last to vent their contempt for isolationism, the urge to do so suddenly overwhelmed them. They socked DeSantis right in the face.

He became their whipping boy, a stand-in for you-know-who whom they could lash safely, without fear of reprisal.

The most obnoxious example was Lindsey Graham, unsurprisingly. “The Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well,” he sniffed after DeSantis claimed that America has no vital interests at stake in Russian expansionism. That left Perticone scratching his head. How could Donald Trump’s shoeshine boy be so high and mighty about DeSantis’ weakness toward Russian aggression when his own patron is worse by any measure?

Russia didn’t invade Ukraine during Trump’s presidency, Graham argued, so “if Trump gets to be president [again], I think this thing will end fairly quickly.” At the same time, Graham painted DeSantis’s position—which, it bears repeating, is almost indistinguishable from Trump’s—as betraying “a fundamental misreading of the situation.” He went so far as to suggest it might be disqualifying.

“If you think Putin [invaded] Ukraine in such a barbaric fashion, [but] giving in to that invasion won’t lead to further aggression, you missed a lot of history,” Graham said, adding, “I think what the governor did that was most disturbing to me is saying that you’re going to not provide F-16s—[that] that’s what Biden’s doing and [it’s] making the war go longer.”

If there is some additional factor that makes Trump’s stance intimidating to Putin—unlike  DeSantis’s almost identical position, which is weak and misguided and unlikely to dissuade Putin—Graham wouldn’t say.

Trump, not DeSantis, is the one screeching that sending weapons to Ukraine is tantamount to starting World War III; he’s the one claiming (in the clip posted above) that it’s time for a rethink on NATO; he’s the one who mused recently that a peace deal might require Russia to “take over” parts of Ukraine; and he’s the one warning, in vintage fascist fashion, that his domestic political enemies are a greater threat than foreign belligerents.

In fairness, he did do more as president than his Democratic predecessor to supply Ukraine with weapons. But he also turned around and used those weapons as leverage to try to shake down the Ukrainians for dirt on his Democratic successor.

The only way you can ignore his greater sins and conclude that it’s actually DeSantis who’s Chamberlain is if, like Lindsey Graham, you’re too lily-livered and careerist to call Trump what he is and need to use a convenient whipping boy to make your point.

Ukraine might not be the only issue on which DeSantis ends up playing that role. He’s swung around to a Trumpier position on protecting Social Security and Medicare lately, now that Trump has made the governor’s prior support for entitlement reform a point of contention. It’s easy to imagine Mike Pence or Nikki Haley or anyone else in the party who worries about the unsustainability of entitlements attacking DeSantis for opposing reform, seeing it as safer ground politically than attacking Trump.

Which is concerning. If DeSantis rather than Trump is taking all of the heat from conservatives in the 2024 field for being too Trumpy in his populism, and if he’s also taking all of the heat from Trump for not being populist enough, his support within both wings of the party could begin to erode. (Which may be what his critics in the Senate want, seeing as how many prefer Tim Scott.) The GOP’s best chance at a new era will have faltered, fittingly because the Republican establishment once again proved too cowardly to take the fight where it belongs.

Or is that too pessimistic? There are more charitable ways to explain why prominent Republicans are honked off at DeSantis over Ukraine.

For one thing, they might be sincerely irritated at how pitiful he’s become in mimicking Trump’s worst opinions to position himself for 2024.

That’s been his strategy for several years. “Trump, but electable” is the core national message of his culture-war crusade in Florida and he executed brilliantly on it when he won reelection in a landslide in November. If your whole shtick is that you’re just like some other politician but more viable at the polls then you need to follow through on being just like that other politician.

It’s a shrewd strategy, I think, especially after Trump’s candidates performed dismally in the midterm by comparison. But it does place DeSantis at risk of seeming a bit, well, pathetic. Trump has begun to make that point:

So have Republican candidates who covet DeSantis’ title as the most formidable Trump alternative in the field:

It’s easy to imagine how “Trump, but electable” might deteriorate in the eyes of populist voters into “just a pale imitation of Trump.” And it’s easy to understand why establishment Republicans now find themselves so irritated to see DeSantis aping Trump yet again, this time on Ukraine. If you’re a right-wing hawk who desperately wants to turn the page, watching the governor follow Trump’s lead on every major issue is destined to leave you wondering whether the page really would be turned if the party nominated the younger man from Florida instead.

Had you polled Senate Republicans privately a month ago and asked them what they expected from a DeSantis presidency, I suspect they would have said “Trump on domestic issues, Romney on foreign policy”—and would have had good reason to think so. Suddenly they’re discovering that they might get Trump again on foreign policy too. Kevin Baron of Defense One writes:

Here’s the basic truth: If Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s freedom is not a key interest of the United States, then what is the worth of freedom in Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, or Turkey? They’re all NATO allies that the United States has sworn to defend, if attacked.

If these Republicans are so eagerly willing to give up Ukraine to Moscow, they will never support Taiwan’s fight to hold off Beijing. And maybe they’re reading Americans better than any of us. Still, it shows how some of today’s anti-China political theater is farce. 

If DeSantis would hand Ukraine over to Moscow on a silver platter so easily, Taiwan is Beijing’s next meal.

We can hope against hope that DeSantis is merely posing as a dove to impress populists before the primary and would revert to his hawkish ways once elected, but that’s a bet with enormous stakes. A man who’s so captive to his base that he’s willing to play-act as an anti-vaxxer might play-act as an isolationist too once in office, with ominous consequences for U.S. interests. Go figure that hawkish Republicans are angry and anxious upon realizing that, and keen to use this episode to try to shove DeSantis back toward the center.

One more point in their defense. Had DeSantis claimed simply that America is overextended and would do better to divert the money being poured into Ukraine toward problems at home, he would have gotten away without much grief. No politician would object too strongly to the sentiment that our people come first, especially if it came packaged with clear-eyed moral condemnation of Russia. “Putin’s war is a crime against the people of Ukraine,” DeSantis could have said. “We should pressure Russia to withdraw through strict sanctions and all available levers of international diplomacy. But a country as deeply in debt as ours can’t foot this bill forever.”

Morally pro-Ukraine but restrained by hard fiscal reality: That could have worked for him. But that’s not the statement he gave us.

Beyond a passing reference to Putin as “ruthless” and to Russia’s military as a “war machine,” you’ll search in vain in DeSantis’ statement on Ukraine for any condemnation of what Russia has done. (In fact, Putin is portrayed as being less ruthless, in all probability, than whoever succeeds him.) The governor’s already-famous antiseptic description of the war as a “territorial dispute” stinks of moral absolution for an authoritarian regime that’s spent 13 months terrorizing a smaller neighbor for no reason grander than imperial ambition.

If Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn and Marco Rubio find that disgusting, well, so do I.

And so, perhaps, does Ron DeSantis, who was a staunch hawk until his path to the presidency required him to be something else. Presumably he recognized the moral tension in declaring Russia’s war reprehensible on the one hand and on the other something the United States should no longer concern itself with, never mind the implications for NATO if Russia succeeds. Forced to reconcile those two views somehow, he forfeited his moral judgment to facilitate the political conclusion he wished to arrive at.

Or, perhaps, he just didn’t want to piss off the right’s anti-anti-Putin faction, which is large enough to matter to his presidential chances.

Which brings us to a fateful question. Will his dovish turn on Ukraine end up helping him or hurting him in the primary?

The schism within the GOP over Ukraine is a real schism. It’s not a “schism” like the one that developed over Trump, in which 90+ percent of the party talked themselves into supporting him in 2016 and the remaining handful of us wandered off into the wilderness. If you read Tuesday’s newsletter, you know that the divide on the right has meaningful numbers on both sides.

Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson just published a fascinating analysis affirming that conclusion. Asked whether vital U.S. interests are at stake if Russia prevails in Ukraine, Republicans split 39-49 between “yes” and “no.” The share who say “yes” is up six points since January while the share who say “no” dropped by four. Intriguingly, Anderson finds that the constituencies across the population whom we tend to think of as most Trumpy—whites, men, senior citizens—are more likely to say that Ukraine is our war than some other demographics are.

Which makes the politics of this subject more complicated for Ron DeSantis than he might have thought.

A lot more complicated, perhaps:

DeSantis is turning dovish to pander to the 52 percent of Ukraine skeptics in Trump’s column but his own base trends hawkish relative to Trump’s. And there are other options in the field, like Nikki Haley and (soon) Mike Pence, to whom hawkish DeSantis voters might turn if they grow disaffected with their guy’s “America First” ambivalence toward Ukraine.

Sacrificing hawkish voters in his own base for dovish voters from Trump’s doesn’t seem like a wise trade to me. The Republicans still left in Trump’s column after eight years of MAGA insanity are doubtless quite invested in their guy, and to the extent that they’re persuadable by selling out Ukraine, DeSantis almost certainly can’t outbid Trump. “In seeking to co-opt Trump on this issue,” Ed Kilgore wrote, “DeSantis may be shrinking what looked like a very big tent of post-Trump Republicans who looked to him as ringmaster.”

Meanwhile, the further he moves toward the dovish position to pander to Trumpers, the more trouble he makes for himself in a potential general election. Asked whether they support sending money and weapons to Ukraine, 79 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents said yes in a new Axios poll compared to 42 percent of Republicans. Nor is that the only issue on which DeSantis finds himself crosswise with the center: Political analyst Simon Rosenberg ran through a bunch of recent polling placing DeSantis in the broad minority on abortion, concealed carry, and “wokery” various and sundry.

Again, a more equivocal statement on Ukraine that clearly condemned Russia while opposing further aid might have found a sweet spot.

But give DeSantis points for sticking to his strategy. He’s gambling that his voters will hang with him, if only on “Anyone But Trump” grounds, no matter how MAGA he gets to court Trump’s voters—and that he can reposition as cynically as necessary in the general election to woo centrists. He may also be gambling that the American right is so confused about the proper direction on foreign policy at this stage that most Republicans won’t much care if their preferred candidate holds the “wrong” opinion on issues like Ukraine. (For instance, despite the right’s isolationist turn, more Republicans than Democrats told Axios that America should remain the global leader.) And of course he’s gambling that becoming a whipping boy for establishment figures who hate Trump’s populism but feel safe directing that hatred only at DeSantis won’t end up costing him meaningful support.

It … could work out, I guess. How much would you gamble that he’s right?

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.