DeSantis's 'Price is Right' Primary Strategy
The governor has decided, for now, that the smart play is closing off political breathing room with Trump.
The other night on Fox News, expected 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis told Tucker Carlson that he doesn’t believe that helping Ukraine protect itself against its Russian invaders is a key interest of the United States.
The governor went as far as referring to the war as a mere “territorial dispute,” and parroted familiar, erroneous lines about concerns of Ukraine being handed a “blank check”, and how offering U.S. support abroad somehow prevents domestic issues from being addressed at home. DeSantis’s remarks stood at stark odds not only with the stances of many Republican members of Congress and some fellow 2024 GOP hopefuls, but also with his own not-so-distant rhetoric and legislative positioning on Russian aggression toward Ukraine.
Still, it wasn’t all that surprising. In fact, it was pretty on-brand for DeSantis.
It’s been clear for some time that the governor’s presidential-primary strategy is to pay fan-service to the populist-right, as harnessed and shaped over the last several years by the likes of Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson. DeSantis assuredly sees it as the clearest path to the Republican nomination, and he may well be right. So, he’s focused on preserving and building on his MAGA cred, while dropping hints that he’ll eventually distinguish himself from Trump (the early front-runner) mostly along lines of electability, tangible political victories in Florida, and elaborate culture-war stunts (the kind of which Trump hasn’t been in a position to employ over the last two years).
As the election-cycle moves forward, I expect DeSantis to continue taking his lead from Trump and Carlson, at least rhetorically. He’ll keep a close eye on the two, gauging through them which themes the most enthusiastic elements of the Republican base respond to, and then position himself accordingly.
I don’t think he’ll go as far as decrying “rigged elections,” or anything like that. It would be self-defeating, being that DeSantis’s huge re-election victory last year is a major selling point for him, and a huge advantage he has over Trump. I also don’t expect him to act as nasty as Trump, throwing out a plethora of nicknames and other overly-personal snipes. Beyond that, I think he’ll mirror Trump pretty closely, and even sometimes find ways to one-up the former president’s game.
It reminds me of that classic “The Price is Right” strategy, where a contestant bids exactly one dollar higher on an item than what their opponent bid. It serves to simultaneously co-opt and deny one of a competitive advantage.
DeSantis has already managed to do that on some issues, including items related to COVID-19. Trump is currently trying to present DeSantis as someone who endorsed pandemic-era shutdowns, but the tale of the tape shows that Trump actually criticized the governor for opening up Florida too early.
Trump certainly helped turn Dr. Anthony Fauci into a villain on the right, but while DeSantis can play the Fauci card all day long (like he’s been doing), Trump can’t escape the close association he had with the good doctor, whose services he retained, by choice, throughout the pandemic.
And as much as I’m sure Trump would love to pander to the anti-vaccine crowd that makes up a good chunk of the base (as DeSantis has been doing over the last several months), the fact of the matter is that Trump’s Operation Warp Speed is how we got the rapid-development of those “evil” vaccines in the first place.
To me and many others, Warp Speed was one of Trump’s biggest achievements (even though I firmly believe any president would have pulled the trigger on the operation). But to a sizeable portion of today’s Republican base, the vaccines created a more serious health crisis than the pandemic itself.
Additionally, DeSantis can boast about using the heavy-hand of government to punish supposedly “woke” corporations (like Disney), while Trump can mostly just talk about doing such things.
In a GOP primary, I’m not sure there’s much of a political downside to what DeSantis is doing. It should both shrink the arsenal of attacks Trump can successfully use against him, while sufficiently appeasing the Tucker Carlson crowd (like he assuredly did with his Ukraine positioning).
Of course, without Trump or Carlson bound to any consistent principles or intellectual lines of thought, the dynamics could easily change… at which point DeSantis would probably just change along with them, and latch onto whatever sweet-spot he feels he needs to.
Perhaps needless to say, today’s GOP is no longer the bold, brave party of Ronald Reagan. It’s more of an echo chamber for comforting a base rather than persuading it.
Most political analysts believe the only viable alternatives for the nomination are Trump and DeSantis. There’s good reason for that, being that more than 75% of Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents say, at this point, that they want one of those two to be the GOP nominee. So, if those candidates’ issue-platforms are pretty much simpatico (even if not sincere), we already have a pretty good idea of which positions the Republican at the top of the ticket will have to defend come the general election.
If Trump wins the nomination, he’ll very likely lose again that November, proving himself electorally toxic for the fourth election-cycle in a row. His positions won’t really matter. As far as most voters are concerned, he himself is the problem, and always will be.
DeSantis has a better chance of going all the way, but even if a defeated and spiteful Trump (who will of course deny he was ever defeated) doesn’t derail DeSantis’s candidacy from the sidelines, the governor will find himself having to answer for some pretty troubling positions — not just for the general election, but also the country.
His new stance on Ukraine would very likely be one of them.
I think Matt’s right. Trump and DeSantis have signaled that the Democratic Party now stands decisively stronger than the Republican Party against Russian aggression. This is a big shift for the GOP, and it has to be music to the ears of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Politically, while the premise of denying Ukraine back-end support — as the country continues to fight for its very survival against a murderous regime with broader global ambitions — may sell well with a growing number of Republicans, I don’t think it will be a general-election winner.
The good (or at least hopeful) news is that I don’t think DeSantis genuinely believes what he just told Tucker Carlson, or even a lot of what he says in front of the cameras these days. I suspect that what he said in the below video, during the early months of the Trump administration, is how he truly views the Russian threat:
Unfortunately, DeSantis has decided that that guy can’t win a Republican primary, not in today’s environment. Neither can someone who publicly acknowledges our country’s desperate need to reform its entitlement programs, or someone who’s fine with letting “woke” CEOs say whatever they want without the threat of government reprisal.
Again, politically speaking, he may be right about all of that. And a lot of right-leaning voters who desperately want the party to turn the page on Trump are probably counting on the governor transitioning back to a more traditional Republican if he takes the White House.
But for now, DeSantis is “the next contestant on The Price Is Right.” He’s going to play the game carefully, closing off as much political breathing room as he can between himself, Trump, and Carlson.
If only Rod Roddy were still around to officially welcome him to the race in a couple months with a boisterous “Come on down!”