The Policy Fights Where DeSantis Sees His Chance to Hit Trump

Ron DeSantis is girding for battle with Donald J. Trump where he believes the former president may be most vulnerable to attack from a fellow Republican: on substance.

Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor, is expected to make a series of policy-based arguments, according to his public statements and interviews with people who have met with him privately and described their conversations on the condition of anonymity.

He is telling Republicans that, unlike the mercurial Mr. Trump, he can be trusted to adhere to conservative principles; that Mr. Trump is too distractible and undisciplined to deliver conservative policy victories such as completing his much-hyped border wall; and that any policy promises Mr. Trump makes to conservatives are worthless because he is incapable of defeating President Biden.

Mr. DeSantis’s challenge is obvious to anyone who has seen a recent poll: Mr. Trump maintains a deep psychological hold over many Republican voters who appear immune to reasoned arguments against him.

The thrice-married Mr. Trump, who stands accused of hush-money payments to women including a porn star, has never been the avatar of a social conservative. But he largely governed as one. That he was motivated more by transaction than by conviction was irrelevant to millions of evangelicals who cheered as he brought about a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

But Mr. DeSantis is expected to argue that the reason Mr. Trump made so many ideologically inexplicable personnel decisions — like elevating Dr. Anthony S. Fauci at the outset of the Covid crisis — was because he has no fixed principles to fall back on when he faced difficult decisions.

By contrast, allies say that Mr. DeSantis will try to make the case to Republican voters that they can trust him to stand his ground on tough issues like abortion.

People who have spent time privately with Mr. DeSantis describe him as an ideologue whose happy place is a quiet room where he can read an academic journal or policy paper. Somewhat socially awkward, he peppers his conversations with references to the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and Supreme Court case law.

Mr. Trump has never been accused of citing the Federalist Papers in casual conversation. His attention span for policy is limited at best. He has powerful gut instincts on trade, immigration and some aspects of foreign policy, but in most policy areas he is open to deal-making or to the suggestions of whoever spoke to him last.

Here are five of their likeliest friction points on policy.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, Mr. Trump has appeared uncomfortable with the consequences of his signature achievement. He privately blamed abortion hard-liners for Republicans’ disappointing results in the midterm elections, has refused to say whether he would support a national abortion ban and implied Florida’s new six-week abortion ban was “too harsh.”

Mr. DeSantis has seized on those remarks, and his allies hope the issue helps him make inroads with the Christian right. “Protecting an unborn child when there’s a detectable heartbeat is something that almost 99 percent of pro-lifers support,” Mr. DeSantis said recently, noting that Mr. Trump, “as a Florida resident,” hadn’t said whether he would have signed “the heartbeat bill.”

Still, despite supporting abortion rights for most of his adult life, Mr. Trump was the most consequential anti-abortion president in history. He reminds conservative audiences that while previous Republican presidents made plenty of promises, he was the one who ended Roe.

Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump differ in their approaches to corporate America.

Mr. DeSantis subscribes to the theory, popular among the self-described “New Right,” that leftists have taken over so many American institutions — including academia, the media and big corporations — that conservatives are fools to cede these battlefields to progressives in the name of “limited government.”

Instead, Mr. DeSantis argues that conservatives must use every lever of government power to fight back — and if that leaves traditional conservatives feeling squeamish, then so be it.

Mr. Trump has flirted with this idea but never fully bought into it. He has fought against so-called environmental, social and governance investments, railed against social media companies for their treatment of conservatives and enacted tariffs that enraged multinationals. But he also slashed taxes for corporations and invited chief executives he would later deride as “globalists” into the Oval Office and onto his business councils.

A longtime New York businessman, Mr. Trump loves, above all, to be seen cutting a deal. He sees Mr. DeSantis’s fights against “woke” Disney as futile and bad for Florida’s economy. He has cheered on the recent efforts by Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, to outmaneuver Mr. DeSantis.

Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis have split in important ways on two pivotal foreign policy questions: how to deal with China, and what role the United States should play in Ukraine’s war against Russia.

Mr. Trump has been credited for prodding Republicans and Democrats into viewing China as a ruthless adversary rather than an imperfect trading partner. But for most of his presidency, Mr. Trump saw the U.S.-China relationship through a purely economic lens.

He praised President Xi Jinping of China as he chased a trade deal that he could trumpet to American farmers. He imposed tariffs on China but rejected other measures like sanctioning Chinese officials for human rights atrocities, lest that interfere with his trade deal. It was only in 2020, after Mr. Trump blamed the Chinese Communist Party for the spread of Covid, that he finally sidelined his administration’s China doves and fully empowered its hawks.

Mr. DeSantis cares less about U.S.-China trade and more about the national security threats that Beijing poses. As governor, he signed a law banning Chinese social media platforms such as TikTok from state government devices and another that will stop many Chinese citizens and companies with ties to its government from buying property in Florida. Mr. Trump has promised to enact similar restrictions on Chinese investment and has called for China to pay trillions of dollars of Covid reparations, but his record suggests he will be more open than Mr. DeSantis to negotiating with Beijing.

On Ukraine, Mr. Trump has gone further than Mr. DeSantis in ruling out American support for Kyiv. While Mr. Trump called Russia’s invasion a “crime against humanity” in the early days of the war, he has more recently refused to draw any moral distinction between the Ukrainians and the Russians — saying only that a deal must be struck. He has mused about handing over chunks of Ukraine to Russia.

After dodging questions about Ukraine, Mr. DeSantis told the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that defending Ukraine against Russia was not a vital U.S. interest and dismissed the war as a “territorial dispute.” Stung by criticism, Mr. DeSantis walked back the “territorial dispute” line, and in a subsequent interview he called Mr. Putin a “war criminal.” Mr. Trump refused to do the same when asked to on CNN.

While both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis are contemptuous of international institutions such as the United Nations, the former president poses a more significant threat to the post-World War II international security framework.

Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, feared his boss would withdraw the United States from NATO and grew convinced he would do so if he won re-election to a second term. Now, Mr. Trump validates those fears on his campaign website, pledging to “finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally re-evaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.”

In Republican nominating contests before the age of Trump, the leading candidates tended to fight over who was more fiscally conservative — who would abolish more federal agencies and who was more likely to reduce the federal government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” as the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist put it.

But Mr. Trump has redefined the G.O.P. primary campaign into a battle over who is the most protectionist on trade, and who will most faithfully preserve government benefits for the elderly. Mr. DeSantis, who rose in politics as a Tea Party fiscal conservative, has so far shown little interest in trying to out-populist the former president on government spending and trade, and seems to hope he can reorient the party’s conversation around fiscal discipline.

Mr. Trump and his super PAC have called out Mr. DeSantis’s congressional votes to cut spending on Social Security and Medicare. Mr. DeSantis has said he won’t “mess with” Social Security for seniors currently dependent on the program, but unlike Mr. Trump, he has not ruled out trimming entitlement spending in ways that would affect younger Americans when they retire.

Mr. Trump has initiated attacks against Mr. DeSantis for his past efforts to kill the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires ethanol to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. Fiscal conservatives see this as “big government” overreach, but Mr. Trump knows how important ethanol is to Iowa’s economy.

Mr. Trump’s allies plan to portray Mr. DeSantis as “weak” on trade — meaning he won’t use tariffs as aggressively as the former president, who proudly branded himself “a tariff man” and launched trade wars with China and Europe. Mr. Trump has promised that in a second term he would introduce “a new system of universal baseline tariffs that rewards domestic production while taxing foreign companies.”

Mr. DeSantis will contrast his budget surpluses in Florida to the trillions of dollars Mr. Trump added to the national debt when he was president. Mr. DeSantis will point out that as a member of Congress he voted against the trillion-dollar-plus spending bills that then-President Trump signed into law in 2017 and 2018. And Mr. DeSantis plans to tie Mr. Trump to high inflation by criticizing his appointment of Jerome H. Powell as Federal Reserve chairman.

Mr. DeSantis has signed hard-line legislation on crime, including a law that lowers the threshold for imposing the death penalty.

Mr. Trump, who has cultivated a law-and-order persona, undercut that image in office by allowing his more liberal son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead bipartisan negotiations on a criminal justice law that would shorten federal prison sentences.

Mr. Trump quickly regretted signing that law, known as the First Step Act, and blamed Mr. Kushner. Privately, Mr. Trump’s own advisers have acknowledged the First Step Act is a vulnerability with his political base.

Yet Mr. DeSantis’s ability to directly attack Mr. Trump over the law is complicated by the fact that, along with most Republicans, he voted for the initial House version of it — one that focused narrowly on prison reform and was opposed by civil rights groups and many Democrats. The much different version that passed, enacted when Mr. DeSantis was no longer in Congress, included sentencing reforms and the ability to apply retroactively for a reduced sentence.

The well-funded super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis is expected to attack Mr. Trump’s record on crime.

And in something of a course correction, Mr. Trump has called for imposing the death penalty for drug dealing, sending the National Guard into high-crime areas and deploying the U.S. military against Mexican drug cartels.

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