Comment: Is DeSantis worse than Trump? For now, it’s pointless

Florida’s governor has offered clues as to his policies, but it’t much too early to begin drawing conclusions.

By Matthew Yglesias / Bloomberg Opinion

As the Ron DeSantis presidential campaign edges ever closer to reality, liberal fears of a DeSantis presidency are getting ever more detached from it. Is he just as bad as Donald Trump? Or even worse? And is it OK to scold your fellow liberals for jumping to conclusions about DeSantis? Or are the scoldings themselves premature?

Pondering all this, I have a radical suggestion: Why not exercise some patience and, you know, wait and see what happens?

Consider that, at this point in the 2016 cycle, Trump hadn’t yet done many of the things that his strongest critics would point to. Trump didn’t mock a reporter with a disability until November 2015, didn’t propose banning Muslims from entering the United States until December, didn’t encourage violence from his supporters until March 2016. His invitation to Russia to intervene in the election didn’t happen until July 2016.

Of course, anyone who has followed Trump’s career had plenty of indications of his bad character. And someone (like me) who favors more immigration and an expansion of free trade never had reason to believe he was an improvement over previous Republican presidents.

But what politicians actually do over the course of their campaigns is relevant. Trump could have taken steps to set fears to rest: about his potential corruption, about his treatment of women, about his scattered compliments of foreign strongmen. What actually happened was the opposite. The case for Trump as a bad actor beyond the course of “normal” policy disputes grew stronger over his presidency, and he proved his biggest critics right on Jan. 6, 2021.

DeSantis, as his defenders say, hasn’t done anything that bad.

But as his detractors say, it’s certainly possible to make some directional inferences based on his track record; starting with the fact that he was an early and eager Trump supporter, and that it was almost certainly Trump’s enthusiasm for him that helped an obscure House member win a tough Republican gubernatorial primary in Florida.

So my argument is not that people should withhold judgment entirely. It’s more narrow: that it’s much too soon to be making definitive pronouncements about who is better or worse.

DeSantis hasn’t even formally announced a campaign. Based on his record in Congress and as governor, there do appear to be a number of important issues on which he is worse than Trump. He has backed privatizing Social Security, for example, and voted repeatedly to privatize Medicare.

DeSantis has also clearly positioned himself to the right of Trump on issues related to vaccines. Trump deserves enormous credit for the whole-of-government effort to prioritize speedy testing and authorization of coronavirus vaccines, an initiative that saved countless lives but that DeSantis seems to think was a huge mistake. Liberals should not be so blinded by hatred of Trump that they fail to see he is better than DeSantis on this or other issues.

At the same time, nothing is set in stone.

Just last week, for example, DeSantis reversed his prior position and promised not to “mess with Social Security.” That’s nice to hear, but it raises some obvious questions. Does he favor raising taxes to prevent the Social Security Trust Fund from being exhausted and automatic benefit cuts from taking place? Seems unlikely. Does he support legislative changes that would cancel the automatic benefit cuts and allow the deficit to rise? And if he doesn’t want to cut Social Security, what does he want to cut? Medicaid? Medicare?

It’s not the end of the world that DeSantis hasn’t answered these questions — it’s only March 2023, after all — but that’s exactly my point. It’s OK not to know yet what a DeSantis campaign would be all about.

In particular, it’s hard to say which criticisms, if any, he will make of Trump (except to get to his right on vaccine development). If DeSantis were to say that Republicans ought to admit that Trump lost fair and square in 2020 and pick a more politically adept standard-bearer, he would be making the case for himself in a way that would merit praise from liberals. But so far, he’s been studiously silent not only on the events of Jan. 6 but also on the broader issue of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.

Meanwhile, although DeSantis’s retaliation against Disney for criticizing his policy agenda is hardly as bad as the worst of Trump’s actions, it’s not exactly reassuring about his commitment to taking the GOP in a less illiberal direction. He’s also pushing a reform to libel and defamation law that Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has denounced as an “aggressive and blatantly unconstitutional attempt to rewrite defamation law in a manner that protects the powerful from criticism by journalists and the public.”

Is that worse than Trump? As bad? I guess not; but it’s not great either. And, to repeat: It’s only March. Election Day is 20 months away.

Suppose DeSantis were to criticize Trump for having tried to bring an antitrust case against Time Warner and AT&T to punish CNN for negative coverage. That would make him better than Trump. Alternatively, he could pledge that a DeSantis administration would be more effective and efficient at pursuing this kind of policy. That would make him worse.

The news cycle has been annoyingly slow so far in 2023, which may explain all the itchy-trigger-finger takes. But one of the tedious realities of American politics is that presidential campaigns are very long. What they require, above almost all else, is patience.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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