November 14, 2022

DeSantis Is an Improvement Over Trump, but the GOP Can Do Better

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had a very good Election Day. Former president Donald Trump? Not so much.

When Donald Trump first ran for president, he assured his supporters that he would preside over an era of “so much winning” that they would eventually get bored with all the victories he would deliver. “We’re going to win so much,” he said. “We’re going to keep winning, winning, winning.”

In fact, the Trump era was largely one of losing, losing, losing, above all when Americans voted. Republicans lost their majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms. Two years later, Trump lost his reelection bid and the GOP lost control of the Senate.

Last week Trump extended his string of losses. In state after state, Republican candidates endorsed by Trump — many of them cranks or amateurs whose chief credential was fealty to the former president — went down to defeat. Thanks to Trump’s influence, the expected red wave never materialized. The one exception was Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis led Republicans to sweeping victories. In 2020, Trump had eked out a narrow win over Joe Biden in Florida, his margin of victory just 3 percentage points. This year, by contrast, DeSantis clobbered his Democratic challenger, former Governor Charlie Crist, in a 60-40 landslide. He did so just days after Trump had mocked him as “Ron DeSanctimonious” at a rally in Pennsylvania.

Trump expected to bask in acclaim on Tuesday, but he seemed to sense before the polls closed that the candidates he had promoted so vigorously might not be headed for glory. “I think if they win, I should get all the credit,” he said in an interview with NewsNation that aired Tuesday. “And if they lose, I should not be blamed at all. But it will probably be just the opposite.”

It was indeed the opposite. As Republican hopes of a midterm triumph turned to ashes, Trump was promptly identified on the right not only as the election’s biggest loser but as the cause of the GOP’s debacle. “The pattern of Republican wins and losses on Tuesday was not random, and its message is not hard to discern,” wrote Yuval Levin, a conservative thinker. “It presents itself as a blinking, blaring, screaming sign that reads ‘Republicans: Trump is your problem.’” After three consecutive election cycles — 2018, 2020, and now 2022 — in which Trump proved to be an electoral liability for Republicans, many in the GOP were finally learning to read the room. Trump may be a fighter, as his MAGA loyalists long maintained. But he isn’t a winner and he was never popular.

DeSantis is both.

Like Trump, the Florida governor cultivates the image of a fighter undaunted by even the harshest criticism. Unlike Trump, DeSantis not only won reelection by a massive margin, he succeeded over the past four years in turning Florida from a perennial battleground into solid red territory. He carried urban, suburban, and rural voters by hefty majorities. He won 57 percent of his state’s critical Hispanic vote. His coattails helped flip three of Florida’s congressional districts from blue to red.

The contrast between the feckless ex-president and the surging Florida governor could hardly be clearer. In exit polls Tuesday, 33 percent of Florida voters said they want to see Donald Trump run for president in 2024. But a far higher share of the electorate — 45 percent — said they hoped their governor would launch a White House bid.

It is one of the oldest rules of thumb in American politics that midterm elections are a referendum on the incumbent president. Trump managed to turn last week’s balloting into a referendum on himself as well. Voters replied with a humiliating thumbs-down and it was fascinating to watch, in real time, as Trump’s star dimmed and DeSantis’s brightened.

In Ohio, Senator-elect J.D. Vance — a MAGA cultist who had spent much of the campaign brownnosing Trump — gave a victory speech in which he thanked 34 people by name, but never mentioned the man whose endorsement he had sought so ardently. The New York Post, which Trump used to call his favorite newspaper, hailed DeSantis on its front page as “DeFUTURE” of the Republican Party. (The Murdoch-owned tabloid gave the knife another twist with a front page on Thursday depicting Trump as “Trumpty Dumpty” who “had a great fall.”) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on Fox News to extol DeSantis as the “biggest winner” of the election and proclaim that he would “almost certainly become the rallying point for everybody in the Republican Party who wants to move beyond President Trump.”

Besides electoral wins, what does DeSantis offer Republicans that Trump doesn’t? Above all, normality.

Whatever else might be said about DeSantis, he operates, as the late P. J. O'Rourke once said about Hillary Clinton, within normal parameters. Over the past four years, he became, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed, an unabashed “avatar of cultural conservatism” who simultaneously demonstrated the ability to “be competent, calculating, aware of public opinion … and capable of bipartisanship and steady leadership in a crisis.”

In Trump, Republicans had a leader who excelled at culture-war pugnacity, trolling liberals, personalizing political disputes, and playing to the mob. DeSantis supplies all that plus a respectable record of governance. His response to the COVID-19 pandemic made him a bête noir to many on the left. But in retrospect, his insistence on keeping schools open and eschewing mandates while strongly promoting vaccines and protecting the elderly, was a highly defensible strategy. If I were a Republican partisan, it would cheer me immensely to see the spotlight move from Trump to DiSantis.

But as a conservative dismayed by the gross incivility of contemporary politics, I am less sanguine about the rise of DeSantis. Like his ideological foes on the woke left, he is too willing to use the power of government to wage cultural battles. When Disney executives criticized DeSantis for supporting legislation to limit discussion of sexual topics in elementary schools, the governor retaliated with a law stripping the company of its longstanding “improvement district” tax status. To score propaganda points during the runup to the election, he devised a scheme to induce 50 migrants from Venezuela to board what they thought was a plane to Boston, then flew them without warning to Martha’s Vineyard.

Nor do I like DeSantis’s Trumpian taste for gratuitous taunts. Denouncing Anthony Fauci to a crowd of cheering supporters, DeSantis barked: “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.” Must our politics be so degrading?

After seven years of being dominated by Trump, the Republican Party finally seems to recognize its need for a smarter, shrewder, and more effective leader. It also needs a leader less ruthless and vengeful, one who knows there is more to leadership than rewarding friends and punishing foes. Compared to Trump, DeSantis is a dramatic improvement. But Republicans can do better.

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