Opinion DeSantis would pave the way for a post-Trump GOP return to normal

(Washington Post Staff illustration; photos by Getty Images)
(Washington Post Staff illustration; photos by Getty Images)

Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review.

If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis runs for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — as many expect, after his staggering reelection victory last Tuesday — plenty of Americans across the partisan divide would have good reason to root for him to win the nomination.

That might sound counterintuitive to Democrats who have been fed for the past couple of years on tales of DeSantis’s perfidy, but the fact remains: Given the bizarre state of American politics during the Trump era, DeSantis would represent a return to normality.

Not that DeSantis, as either a presidential nominee or as the 47th president, would always be right, wise or admired. You might vehemently disagree with much of what he says and does. You might even hate the guy.

But DeSantis would be a Republican nominee without Donald Trump’s worst and most destructive impulses and habits. The governor certainly doesn’t shy from a scrap, but he fights for policies, not to prosecute vendettas. Having a normal-range Republican leader on the national stage would be a beneficial reset for the entire country.

Trump sees the threat. With DeSantis threatening to drag the GOP away from the fever swamps where Trump has flourished, the former president on Thursday declared all-out war, denouncing DeSantis in a social media volcanic eruption.

Better for conservatives

When DeSantis launches his presidential candidacy (let’s assume it for these purposes), Trump fans and Democrats alike can be counted on to amplify a common barb about DeSantis: that he isn’t very smart. The governor apparently lucked into Yale undergrad and Harvard Law School.

Those are just two entries on a sterling résumé for a presidential candidate.

DeSantis also won a U.S. Navy commission as a judge advocate general, or JAG, officer; deployed to Iraq as an adviser to a Navy SEAL commander in support of the SEAL mission in Anbar province; and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service.

After leaving the Navy, DeSantis worked as a federal prosecutor, then ran for the U.S. House in 2012 and won, served three terms, ran for governor in 2018 and won again. At 44, he’s young enough to be the father of small children and still be in the U.S. Naval Reserve, but he’s old enough to have served 10 years in elected office.

Not exactly a real estate developer who decided to cap off his career with a stint in the White House.

As governor, DeSantis took on some gargantuan fights and won. Most notably, his pandemic policies — reopening society faster and wider than many other states — spurred outrage from liberals who nicknamed him “DeathSantis.” (His name seems to invite puerile name games, as with Trump’s recent “DeSanctimonious.”) But the governor came out of the pandemic more popular in Florida than when it started.

As Americans consider lockdown fallout — including children’s learning loss from school closings, the impact of prolonged isolation on mental health, ruined small businesses, etc. — governors who quickly reopened their states look increasingly wise.

Next to his pandemic policies, DeSantis might be best known for Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act — better known by the name its critics gave it, the “don’t say gay” law. Liberals howled that the measure was pure discrimination, targeting teachers and students who wanted to discuss sexual matters openly. But many Florida parents saw it as a common-sense restriction keeping explicit materials out of elementary school classrooms.

DeSantis soon found himself taking flak from one of his state’s biggest businesses. Walt Disney Co., under pressure from employees, openly criticized the parental rights law. The governor clearly sensed that Disney had positioned itself on the unpopular side of a big issue with parents. He vowed to “fight back” against the “woke corporation” and successfully pushed for legislation ending Disney’s special tax benefits.

As DeSantis pursued other measures to punish the company, according to the Wall Street Journal, Disney decided that “keeping quiet” would be the better path in dealing with the governor. When push came to shove, the House of Mouse backed down.

During Trump’s presidency, his most ardent defenders excused the president’s never-ending circus with the rallying cry “But he fights!” That usually meant complaining on Twitter a lot. DeSantis doesn’t waste time throwing Twitter tantrums; and when he fights, he fights to win.

Underpinning DeSantis’s high-profile tangles are the policy goals of a traditional conservative Republican, not the cobbled-together agenda that typified the Trump years. If you haven’t heard him campaigning for lower taxes, that might be because he’s the governor of a state with no income tax. His antipathy for government bureaucracy can be seen in his successful move last year to compel cities and counties to speed up the permitting process for new housing.

On election night, DeSantis boasted that his state is “where woke goes to die.” The far left would detest that description, but Florida voters overwhelmingly supported him Tuesday. And, as the governor loves to note, Americans are flocking to the state, where the population is booming and more business applications are filed than anywhere else in the nation.

Better for moderates

If DeSantis the nominee became president, Democrats and Republicans would no doubt disagree just as strongly as before. But there would be one big difference: They’d spend more time arguing about policy and what the federal government ought to do, and less about whatever crazy thing Trump said or did that day.

Independents and centrists might find themselves disappointed or irked with a President DeSantis. But they’d be irked within normal parameters, not fearing that he’d burn the country down in a fit of rage because he thinks someone wasn’t being fair to him.

As is all too well known, Trump on social media is a taunter, a belittler, a braggart. Compare that with DeSantis’s Twitter feed, which might or might not be administered by the governor: It is an anodyne scroll of alerts about the weather, news about Florida government initiatives and occasional retweets of messages from his wife, Casey, on such controversial matters as having “a happy and safe Halloween.”

It’s worth noting that DeSantis, unlike many elected Republicans, has never claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged or stolen, and he rejected calls for a statewide audit of Florida’s 2020 vote. It would have been preferable if DeSantis hadn’t campaigned in the midterms for bona fide election deniers such as Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Kari Lake in Arizona, but that might be too much to expect of any Republican with aspirations for higher office. By the low standards of today’s GOP, though, a Republican who ignored Trump’s 2020 bellyaching is a step in the right direction.

DeSantis, for all his pugnaciousness, colors inside the lines, operating within the traditionally defined powers of his office and the constitutional framework of government. One of the knocks against him is that he’s too buttoned-down, businesslike, even wonky. There might be some truth to that, but during his time as governor, the trait has translated into a strong interest in the day-to-day running of the state’s executive branch.

A DeSantis presidential candidacy would promise more order than the chaotic Trump administration and more direction than the run-by-subordinates Biden White House.

Better for liberals

As DeSantis’s plausibility as a GOP presidential candidate rose over the past year, progressives began raising an alarm that he would be “worse” than Trump. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who had previously seemed to regard Trump only as a menace to the nation, wrote in September that “Trump has the skills of a celebrity. He’s funny, he has stage presence, and he has a kind of natural charisma,” while DeSantis is “meaner and more rigid, without the soft edges and eccentricity of the actual Donald Trump.”

Putting aside the disorienting effect of seeing a progressive portray an almost cuddly Trump in the service of bashing DeSantis, how true is it that liberals would find him worse than Trump?

On the evidence from Florida, that isn’t at all clear. If you let the smoke clear from the high-profile fights over pandemic policies and parental rights in education, DeSantis emerges as a committed conservative, yes, but also one with some ideological wrinkles that those on the left might find surprising.

As governor, DeSantis increased spending on environmental projects by $1.5 billion compared with the previous four years.

He and the state legislature approved $800 million to increase salaries and raises for teachers across Florida, boosting the average starting salary to at least $47,000 a year, ninth-highest in the nation.

DeSantis also launched a $100 million program for home purchases by educators, health-care professionals, child-care workers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and veterans or active members of the military.

Yes, on abortion rights, DeSantis is much more conservative than liberals would prefer, but not so drastic as leaders in many other red states. In April, he signed a law making abortion legal until the 15th week of pregnancy, or later to protect the mother from injury or death. DeSantis seems content for his state’s laws to align with those of many European countriesbanning elective abortions after 15 weeks, with certain exceptions for a woman’s health.

Every now and then, DeSantis takes the not-so-conservative path when it’s popular with his constituents. This doesn’t mean liberals will embrace him; it’s just an observation that a DeSantis presidency wouldn’t mean enduring four years of an inflexible, hardcore conservative. There would be occasional areas of agreement.

The DeSantis road to 2024

There’s no getting around the fact that nominating DeSantis would include some risk for the Republican Party. If DeSantis bested Trump for the GOP nomination, the former president could be counted on to claim fraud in the primaries.

If Trump tries the same old “I was robbed!” song and dance in the 2024 Republican primaries, some Trump loyalists undoubtedly would choose to believe it all — the MyPillow guy, the non-Fox News right-of-center news channels. But most Republicans are focused on ending the Biden-Harris era, and if DeSantis can prove he’s the best person to accomplish that task, they’d back him. Few Republicans would want to fight a GOP civil war after the primaries, all because Trump’s ego is so fragile that he can never admit he lost fair and square.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton and her media allies were convinced that Trump would be the easiest Republican to beat in the general election; we saw how that worked out. More recently, though, Democrats cynically backed the Trumpiest wackos in the 2022 Republican primaries — despite constantly decrying the GOP as a “threat to our democracy” — and the strategy largely worked. But it’s difficult to believe Democrats would again angle to face Trump in 2024.

Maybe to truly and permanently put the Trump era of American politics behind us, Democrats will have to accept a slightly higher risk of a not-so-crazy Republican winning the general election. Considering the stakes, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

In March 2000, then-Boston Celtics head coach Rick Pitino was enduring a disappointing season and vented his frustration about fans with unrealistic expectations for his young team, in an infamous exasperated rant: “Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they’re going to be gray and old.”

To those on the left who see Trump as a menace to the Constitution and our system of government: Moderate Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is not walking through that door as the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. Departing Republican members of Congress such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger — Democratic heroes as Trump antagonists — are not walking through that door.

Unless someone else bubbles up, the only real shot at not facing Trump you’ve got walking through that door is DeSantis.

And could Trump win? Yes, full stop. That might seem impossible after the GOP’s midterms misfire and the “Trump is done” talk that followed. But it’s a long time from Nov. 8 to the first 2024 Republican primary, and the country knows too well, after 2016, that there’s no such thing as impossible in American politics.

If the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden or Kamala D. Harris — both of whom would arrive at the convention as damaged goods, for a multitude of reasons — plenty of voters would want to take a close look at DeSantis. Yes, he’s conservative and can be combative. But he takes his job seriously, he picks his battles and he focuses on results. In other words, he’s not crazy — in fact, he’s relatively normal.

Loading...
Loading...