The Binary Before the Storm
Maybe the 2024 GOP Primary will come down to Trump vs. DeSantis, but why decide now?
There’s a political debate that’s been raging online in recent weeks about a “binary choice” that many on the right are insisting needs to be made this very moment. It’s in regard to the 2024 presidential race, but it’s not about the general election. No, the issue is the GOP primary contest that will precede it, and the choice, according to many folks, is between Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
No other Republican candidate need apply.
I have no idea how popular this mindset is among the more “offline” crowd (my hunch is that few have given it much of a thought), but it’s been a surprisingly passionate topic on the Twitter-sphere that’s pulled in some of the country’s top conservative and right-wing commentators.
The premise of the ultimatum is that, because of the current state of GOP politics, Trump and DeSantis are the only two Republican politicians with any realistic chance of winning the party’s nomination. This determination takes into consideration the base’s continued loyalty to Trump (and their desire to punish his GOP critics), the control he still has over much of the Republican establishment and fund-raising arms, and DeSantis’s popularity, among the base, as a culture-war waging Trump acolyte with some notable political wins.
And so far, the polls would seem to lend credence to the view. Most Republican voters say they want Trump as their nominee, and between 20 and 25 percent say the prefer DeSantis. No other potential candidate breaks single digits, and those who’ve gotten on Trump’s bad side (for any reason) barely register.
The side advocating for DeSantis largely views the governor as a realistic off-ramp from the Trump era, even though DeSantis is a pretty Trumpy guy himself (rhetorically, performatively, and in the political fights he chooses). While there are certainly people on Team DeSantis who genuinely like the elements of Trumpism he has incorporated into his brand, others view those characteristics from a politically pragmatic perspective, in that they are — for now — a requirement for sustainability and advancement within the Republican party.
Why is such an off-ramp needed? Well, it should be obvious, but I’ll spell it out anyway...
Whether you love him or hate him, Trump would bring an extraordinary amount of baggage to a 2024 run — far more than he did in 2016. Aside from never achieving a positive average approval rating during his four soap-opera-style years as president, and handing the GOP its biggest electoral losses in 70 years, Trump spent his final months in office trying to overturn U.S. democracy, provoking a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and denying the country of its peaceful transfer of power. Twice-impeached, Trump is also currently under FBI investigation for the improper removal and possession of highly classified government documents. He’s additionally facing a criminal probe in Georgia over election tampering, and he’s in legal trouble in New York over real estate holdings. Who knows what other investigations and legal drama are forthcoming?
Most Americans have had more than their fill of Trump, as evidenced by the polls. As unpopular of a president as Joe Biden is, he still leads Trump in general election match-ups.
DeSantis doesn’t have Trump’s baggage. Sure, there are things about him and his record that would prove to be liabilities in the general election, but they don’t compare to Trump’s long list.
So, it’s DeSantis or bust, according to some. For Republican voters who don’t want Trump to be the 2024 nominee, DeSantis is their only recourse. Supporting any other alternative would only divide the “not-Trump” contingent into smaller individual pieces, which would likely help Trump achieve a plurality win, like in 2016. Thus, there must effectively be a two-candidate primary. That’s the viewpoint anyway.
While I follow the logic, and do think the GOP would benefit from having far fewer candidates than in 2016, I’m also taken back by this passionate belief, held even among a number of conservative thinkers I very much respect, that now is the time for choosing.
I mean… no one’s even announced they’re running yet. Right?
Sure, it’s assumed that Trump will get in. And DeSantis has enough political capital that it would certainly make sense for him to do the same. But why not let things play out a bit before jumping right into “binary choice” mode? Does it really make sense to start off a long primary season with no real vision beyond that of avoiding a worst-case scenario?
I think it would be especially prudent to take a step back, being that we have no idea what a DeSantis presidential campaign would even look like.
Would the governor even take Trump on (he hasn’t thus far), or would he continue to lavish praise on the former president, thank him for his accomplishments, portray him as an unfortunate (but irreversibly damaged) victim of the “deep state”, and argue that a DeSantis administration is the only viable option for “making America great again”?
If that ended up the strategy (which wouldn’t surprise me being that DeSantis recognizes he would need support from Trump loyalists to win), I can’t imagine it working very well, especially on a debate stage next to the former president, where DeSantis’s social awkwardness and lack of charisma would make him easy prey for an animated rebuttal.
If the choice comes down to the magnetic leader of MAGA, and a comparatively boring disciple of MAGA, I don’t think that’s going to work in favor of DeSantis and the “binary choice” crowd. It certainly wouldn’t work in the general election, regardless of who ends up as the Democratic nominee.
So, why not just wait for a bit and see what happens? Right now, there are too many unknowns, with too few recognized possibilities. Let’s not write off the prospects that events can change everything, fresh faces can rise to the occasion, and we might actually see a serious exchange of persuasive ideas on a GOP stage.
I’m sure that sounds naive to many (and it probably is), but I think it’s a far more reasonable position than making a choice this important two years before the Republican National Convention, before anyone has declared their candidacy.
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Good column. It's a shame that our focus is so narrow so soon. It's a "rich get richer" phenomenon that if you already have high name recognition (e.g. Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, etc.) everything you do or say gets media attention. My belief is that there are "hidden leaders" throughout the country, moderates willing to take good ideas from both sides and have a record of accomplishment. They're not pushed by their parties because they're not pure enough ideologues. Gov. Baker of Massachusetts comes to mind. Leaving aside for now the question of whether he/she would be willing to run, who are the people in this country you admire the most and believe would make a good President?