By Joshua Green / Bloomberg Opinion
Donald Trump’s expected indictment for an alleged hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels is obviously a big complicating factor in his campaign to win next year’s GOP presidential nomination. But it’s nearly as vexing for the man who looks likely to be his main challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. An indictment would force DeSantis to make a choice: Kowtow to the former president and look weak or use the tawdry sex scandal to try to loosen his grip on the GOP. DeSantis’s decision may determine his political future.
Over the last year or so, DeSantis has turned himself into a top presidential contender by treading a careful path, advertising his allegiance to the MAGA masses while building out a profile that is distinct from Trump’s; and ultimately, he hopes, more appealing to Republican voters. Most Republicans looking to get ahead (Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, etc.) spent years fluffing Trump’s ego on Fox News because that was the surest way to get attention and signal one’s Republican bona fides. But this came at a price: Playing the role of Trump courtier consigned them to “beta male” status, making it hard to mount a convincing challenge to him in 2024.
DeSantis elided this problem by recognizing that conservatives respond to the kind of big, loud, confrontational cultural fights that Trump specializes in; and that they didn’t automatically have to involve Trump. So DeSantis launched a bunch of fights that might be thought of as “Trump adjacent” and cast himself in the starring role: battling covid mask mandates in Florida, going after “woke” Disney, sending a planeload of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard to upset liberals and delight Fox News viewers. “Ron is very good, and has always been very good, at knowing the things that are going to trigger the media,” Brad Herold, one of his former campaign managers, said recently.
Trump was annoyed. But there wasn’t much he could do. He was exiled in Mar-a-Lago, banned from mainstream social media, and blamed for Republicans’ poor midterm election results, even as DeSantis was basking in the glow of a landslide reelection that vaulted him into the lead of several Republican presidential polls.
The problem with DeSantis’ strategy is that he couldn’t put off a direct confrontation forever. Eventually, he’d have to face Trump. I expected the reckoning to come on a debate stage. But Trump appears to have chosen the occasion of his indictment to force the issue a lot sooner. In classic Trumpian fashion, he’s cast his self-inflicted legal travails as a witch hunt by perfidious deep state liberals like Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg and demanded that Republicans publicly defend him.
Most have. But DeSantis is awkwardly trying to have it both ways. On Monday he took an indirect swipe at Trump by stating, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star” and then, in the next breath, attacked Bragg as “a Soros-funded prosecutor.”
Trump didn’t let this craven straddling pass. His campaign blasted DeSantis for insufficient fealty and for not volubly echoing his claim that the indictment constitutes a “weaponization of our legal system.” With Trump back at the center of the political universe, recovering in the polls, and calling on his supporters to launch street protests, DeSantis can no longer coast above the fray, as much as he seems to want to.
He shouldn’t need any reminding of what Trump does to overmatched opponents: belittles them by affixing emasculating nicknames (Low Energy Jeb, Liddle Marco, etc), humiliates them through repeated personal attacks (insulting Ted Cruz’s wife), and counts on their inability or unwillingness to fight back with vigor (the entire 2016 GOP field). For DeSantis, this process is already well underway. As Nancy Cook of Bloomberg News reported, Trump is weighing the merits of “Tiny D,” “Meatball Ron,” and other choice barbs. He has taken to Truth Social to insinuate without evidence that DeSantis, while teaching at a private school after college, cavorted with under-age girls (on Monday he further suggested one of them may have been transgender). It would be remarkable, but hardly unimaginable, if the person who sustained the most political damage from Trump’s sex scandal wasn’t Trump but Ron DeSantis.
On the other hand, DeSantis could do the obvious political thing and attack Trump frontally by reminding Republican voters that his reckless disregard for the law (to say nothing of his own marriage) risks inflicting further electoral damage on the GOP and handing Joe Biden another term. In addition to shoring up his own masculinity, DeSantis would boost his chances of beating Trump next year.
DeSantis’ biggest attribute as a presidential candidate is that he’s perceived to have broader electoral appeal than Trump. But a CNN poll last week highlighted a key obstacle for him: Republicans, unlike Democrats, don’t put a particularly high premium on electability. Only 41 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they’d choose a candidate based on his or her ability to beat Biden, while 59 percent said they’d choose the person who agrees with their views on major issues. Trump led the poll. DeSantis will have to take him down a peg or two if he hopes to prevail.
Making a move now might be the best chance DeSantis gets. Trump’s indictment marks the first time a former president has ever been charged with a crime. The scandal doesn’t implicate other Republican politicians or even Trump supporters, as the Jan. 6, 2021, riots did. Unlike his removal of classified documents, there’s no argument that national security is at stake or any matter other than Trump’s own feelings of martyrdom. All his huffing and puffing aside, what’s at issue is no more than a sleazy personal affair.
For DeSantis, it won’t get easier than this. If he can’t muster the courage — or at least the political wisdom — to point this out to voters, it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s attacks won’t soon have their intended effect.
Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.”
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