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Opinion | The Anti-Trump Strategy that Might Actually Work

Opinion | The Anti-Trump Strategy that Might Actually Work

by host

During the long interlude when the Florida governor was stuck in an in-between state — presumed a presidential candidate, but not formally one — there were doubts about whether he’d be willing to take on Trump.

The last week has shown that they were unfounded. Pushaw has been a relentless combatant against pro-Trump Twitter accounts, memes and arguments. The DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down has been similarly bellicose. And DeSantis himself has been unafraid to draw contrasts with Trump in interviews and speeches.

It all adds up to the most aggressive anti-Trump advocacy from someone who wants and expects to have a future in Republican politics since 2016. This isn’t Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger, fierce Trump critics who clearly were buying one-way tickets to an early retirement from Congress, with perhaps the sweetener of a CNN contract. DeSantis is making a bid, not to howl into the wilderness about Trump, but to take the party from him.

Now, since that’s the end in mind, DeSantis’ case is carefully circumscribed. He is not making a comprehensive argument against Trump as unfit to serve. Rather, DeSantis wants to get to his right on key issues and convince Republicans sympathetic to Trump and to his politics that the former president failed to deliver and isn’t reliable.

A key element of the DeSantis approach is to counterpunch

Trump would probably be best served by consistently hitting DeSantis as an alleged tool of the establishment, whose successes have come on the inherently favorable terrain of Florida. Since Trump can’t help himself, though, he’s resorting to indiscriminate fire.

His charge that former Gov. Andrew Cuomo did a better job on Covid than DeSantis doesn’t get him anything. It associates him with a Republican villain (the New York Democrat has hailed Trump’s belated endorsement), and plays into the hands of the DeSantis camp that argues Trump doesn’t regret the lockdowns and would do them again.

Other Trump attacks — criticizing DeSantis for his six-week abortion ban in Florida, his ongoing fight with Disney and his past support for entitlement reform — have created the opening for DeSantis to say that Trump is hitting him from the left and is no longer the Trump everyone remembers from 2015-2016. More specifically, DeSantis has leveraged attacks on his vote against an omnibus bill in Congress to denounce all the money Trump spent as president. And he’s used his vote against an immigration bill to remind people how Trump supported legislation that provided legal status for so-called Dreamers.

If DeSantis is trying to make a good defense the best offense on those issues, he’s gone out of his way to pick a fight on the criminal justice reform that Trump signed into law as president, the First Step Act. Crime is a central concern of Republican primary voters, and Trump’s support of an off-brand, bipartisan measure that released some prisoners early is a clear vulnerability.

DeSantis is also trying to elevate competent governance to more than simply a process issue and give it ideological salience by talking of how Trump couldn’t follow through on key priorities. The border wall obviously never got built, and Never Back Down tweeted a thread blaming Trump for getting played by “the swamp.” When Trump this week pledged to end birthright citizenship with an executive order on Day One — which would instantly get blocked by the courts if he tried it — Never Back Down pointed out he’d repeatedly promised to do the same thing as president while never actually doing it.

The trickiest issue for DeSantis may be how to talk about the 2020 election. Letting Trump get away with his insistence it was stolen is to concede that he’s a supposed two-time winner of national elections, making it impossible to argue he’s the chief reason that the GOP has developed, in the DeSantis phrase, a “culture of losing.” On the other hand, directly contradicting Trump’s false claim risks alienating Republicans who have bought some version of the Trump lie.

DeSantis showed how he thinks he can handle the question in a notable post-launch interview with Ben Shapiro. He implicitly accepted the idea that the election was “rigged,” an amorphous term adopted by some Trump supporters to signify that the election was unfair but not necessarily stolen.

DeSantis cited changes in election procedures in 2020, but blamed Covid alarmism promoted by Fauci — who worked for Trump — for justifying those changes. He added that Trump was foolish and negligent in urging people not to vote by mail and not having better organizations in states with extensive mail-in voting and “ballot harvesting.” In other words, Trump was at fault for his poor management of his own administration and his shortsighted tactical choices.

DeSantis added that if he’s the GOP nominee, “I’m not going to make excuses,” and he’ll get it done and be inaugurated in January 2025. Translation: Trump lost, and I won’t.

Now, the DeSantis case against Trump isn’t full-throated. It doesn’t address his character, his ongoing and growing legal difficulties, or his abysmal conduct after the November 2020 election, including Jan. 6. It is a narrowly tailored message meant for an audience that will have a decisive influence on the 2024 nomination battle — Republicans who are fond of Trump, appreciate what he did as president, and instinctively feel defensive of him when attacked, but are open to another candidate. Without robust support from this group of voters, DeSantis isn’t going to win.

It may be that, despite what seems possible at the moment, Republicans could be swayed by a more robust anti-Trump argument, or that the balance DeSantis is trying to strike isn’t sustainable in the rough-and-tumble of the campaign. Certainly, how DeSantis eventually takes the fight to Trump on a debate stage will matter enormously.

All that said, in the early days, nothing in how DeSantis and his team are handling themselves indicate fear of battling with Trump. At a press gaggle in Iowa on Tuesday, DeSantis asked of Trump’s silence on the debt ceiling deal: “Are you leading from the front, or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take?” In a statement on Memorial Day, Never Back Down quoted the son of a man killed in the Sept. 11 attacks who slammed Trump for, through his support of the Saudi-funded LIV tournament, “lining the pockets [of] a country who stands accused in a trial as we speak … of aiding and abetting and sponsoring the 9/11 terror attacks.”

For the longest time, the way to thrive in Republican politics was to back Donald Trump, or at least step around him. That option isn’t available to Ron DeSantis, and his nascent campaign obviously realizes it.

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