As he moves closer to announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, Ron DeSantis is also inching toward actually criticising Donald Trump. At an event in Iowa, the Florida governor took a shot at the former president by alluding to the GOP’s “culture of losing.”
DeSantis is going to have to be a lot more explicit if he wants to prevail. As the governor probably understands, you can’t defeat someone if you’re afraid to say his name.
He’s also going to need to rethink the content of the criticism, not just its tone. The critique that DeSantis is making of Trump — that he would lose in November 2024 — might be popular among the governor’s supporters, but it would probably fall flat among the Republican voters he needs to persuade to win.
For one thing, Trump has defied such predictions before. He was written off as a joke candidate in the Republican primaries when he entered the presidential race in 2015.
When he won the nomination, it was assumed that Hillary Clinton would handily defeat him. (I’m among those who said he wouldn’t win either time.) Then he won against her, too.
To convince Republican voters that Trump is a loser would thus require getting them to believe that the same argument everyone made back then and saw blow up in their faces is right this time. For many conservatives, Trump’s 2016 victory reinforced the idea that “electability” is a ploy used by the media and squishy Republicans to discredit candidates who are willing to fight for them.
DeSantis Challenges Trump's Legacy
One might think that the fact that Trump lost the last presidential race to Joe Biden would strengthen the case that he would lose a rematch. But Trump has shielded himself from this reality by insisting that he won the 2020 election only to have the Democrats steal it.
Pollsters find that most Republican voters say they believe some version of this story, which presumably is why DeSantis has never explicitly rejected it.
The claim that Trump can’t win will also continue to run into polls that suggest otherwise. Which leads to one last reason the electability argument is a dud: In its strongest form, it is almost certainly false. Trump might well be a riskier candidate for Republicans than DeSantis would be. Given the right national environment 18 months from now — if, say, gas prices spike again or a recession hits — Trump could win.
To have a chance of besting Trump, DeSantis has to convince Republicans that as president he would deliver better results. Voters need to believe they would get the conservative policies that Trump accomplished for them, and more, without everything they disliked about the Trump presidency.
That’s not just a matter of avoiding “mean tweets.” DeSantis would also have to make it clear that his administration would not be consumed by feuds between the president and his own appointees or the guessing games about which presidential statements were meant to be taken seriously.
He would have to promise to keep nominating conservative judges as Trump did while also accomplishing the kind of reform of the immigration system or strategy towards China that Trump merely gestured toward.
There is plenty of material for DeSantis to make this case. His governorship has been a case study in what a disciplined politician working with allies can do to change the policies and political culture of a state. Trump might talk about Republicans as the party of workers, but it’s DeSantis who has required companies to verify that the people they’re hiring are legally here.
In other words, the key argument that DeSantis has to make is that he would be a better president than Trump, at least in terms of what matters to Republican voters. He might not succeed in making that case. But if he’s not willing to try, there’s no point in his running.
Ramesh Ponnuru is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.